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Larry Donnelly: Biden needs to come up with some effective counter-punches to survive this long (long) campaign

The first debates between Democratic presidential hopefuls were held this week.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THREE CONTEXTUAL POINTS are worth making before evaluating how the
individual candidates for the Democratic nomination to be the next President of the
United States fared in the debates held on Wednesday and Thursday – in the middle
of the night, Irish time.

First, it is still early, very early, in the nomination process. There are more
than six months until the gaze of political watchers around the globe turns to the
equally frigid, if entirely different, landscapes of Iowa and New Hampshire.

Conventional wisdom suggests that most American voters don’t even tune in until
after Labour Day (the first Monday in September) and, even at that, many won’t make
their minds up before Christmas.

These were primarily for the media, activists on the left, political junkies and, perhaps most importantly, moneyed donors. It was reported that some 15 million watched on Wednesday, but that is a tiny fraction of the electorate.

Second, organisers, wary of the chaos of the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates when there were 17 candidates, endeavoured to balance order and free speech. Each of these encounters had ten candidates.

And while that is way too much of a crowd in an ideal world, the moderators did a decent job under the circumstances of ensuring all voices were heard and keeping things moving along – reasonable criticisms to the contrary notwithstanding.

In fairness to the hopefuls on Wednesday, they were generally respectful and exercised appropriate restraint to a person. Thursday’s grouping collectively was rowdier and harder to contain.

Third, it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from them. In particular, the reaction of the audiences present at the debates is not necessarily a harbinger of the sentiments of the ordinary women and men who will have their say in selecting Donald Trump’s challenger in November 2020.

Those in attendance were predominantly ardent, left-wing, grassroots Democrats. Their applause, or absence thereof, mightn’t be an apt barometer of the resonance of the statements made by the candidates.

With the foregoing as prelude, then, what happened in Miami?

The warm up debate

Wednesday was widely regarded as a warm-up, second tier – or junior varsity in American parlance – affair. Opinion surveys to date indicate that former vice president Joe Biden, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, California senator Kamala Harris and the upstart young mayor of relatively tiny South Bend, Indiana Pete Buttigieg constitute the top five of the roughly two dozen men and women seeking their party’s endorsement.

Of these alleged frontrunners, only Warren took part on Wednesday.

Although some characterised hers as a listless outing and not in keeping with her reputation as a skilled debater, Warren emerged unscathed and, accordingly, must be regarded the overall winner. She is a policy wonk, yet communicated her positions candidly and effectively to the approval of the faithful there.

At the same time, while rapturous cheering greeted her refusal to name any restrictions on abortion she would favour and her advocacy for government-run, “single payer” healthcare, the public writ large is divided.

In this vein, the reticence of Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar (and others on both nights) to go that far on healthcare may have met with stony silence on Wednesday, but tens of millions of Americans who are happy with their private insurance plans undoubtedly would react very differently.

As for the rest, New Jersey senator Cory Booker spoke extremely well, as ever, but didn’t say much concrete. Erstwhile wunderkind Beto O’Rourke of Texas was empty and too packaged.

Indeed, his fellow Texan Julian Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and Obama administration official, upbraided O’Rourke passionately on the issue of immigration in the wake of the ongoing tragedy on the Mexican border and made his presence felt very much throughout.

Castro did as well as he could have hoped, though his remains a straight uphill quest. None of the others rose to the occasion.

The main event

Thursday was billed, or at least popularly considered, as the main event in the run-up. It was a boisterous affair in which the exposition of substantive policy was relegated to the back seat.

Without doubt, the moment of the debate was Kamala Harris’s pointed attack on Joe Biden for the former Delaware senator’s near boast that he had worked constructively with civil rights foes decades previously and for his opposition to school busing to achieve desegregation in the 1970s.

As ever, Harris was compelling, forceful and articulate. She shone. And even though Biden and his advisers had to know this was coming, he did not have an effective line of rebuttal.

His unpersuasive response reflects the tricky position the senior statesman finds himself in. Biden is well ahead of the pack in all the polling and he has support from all the party’s key constituencies.

Being perceived to attack or, perhaps worse, to talk down to Harris or any of the other younger candidates could be badly perceived by the energetic and enthusiastic next generation of Democrats and rebound spectacularly on him.

If Biden is to succeed in his third attempt to be their standard-bearer, he must come up with a nuanced counterpunch, and fast. In some instances, his statements at the debate were aimed at a broader audience.

His insistence that gun manufacturers, not the National Rifle Association, were the enemy was one such. Indeed, Democrats can’t cede gun owners to Donald Trump in this election, but Biden has to win the battle before he can wage the war.

While Harris was the clear winner on Thursday, “Mayor Pete” should also be pleased with his showing. He demonstrated in abundance the qualities that have elevated him from obscurity to prominence.

Most impressively, when the lack of diversity in his city’s police force was raised, Buttigieg did not obfuscate. He stated unequivocally:

I couldn’t get it done.

Voters may appreciate that sort of refreshing honesty.

Sanders not spectacular

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders put in a decidedly “ho-hum” performance.

There wasn’t very much new and, in a way, he is a victim of his own 2016 success. The other candidates now dress in the once unfashionable clothes he has always worn.

Moreover, his admirably frank admission that the middle class would pay more in taxes if he were to achieve his agenda won’t go unnoticed and probably won’t help his cause.

Sanders’ poll numbers have been sliding of late and he has a major job of work ahead of him to stave off further erosion. There is a creeping sense that he is yesterday’s man.

Now, the internal campaign post mortems are either well underway or completed. The “winners” are trying to build momentum; the “losers” are regrouping and plotting a way forward.

These putative Trump vanquishers are back crisscrossing the country and embracing all that comes with running for president: raising dollars, meeting voters, honing messages, seeking as much media exposure as possible.

Chasing the dream.

Their gang of 20 or so aspirants will reunite in Detroit at the end of next month for another two-night debate. The long and winding road continues.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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