The Democrats are in trouble. There’s a reason I’ve spent nearly all my time talking about the Republicans: new faces, young energy, lots of ideas . . . Donald Trump. The efficacy of the parties’ competing policies can be less relevant than the optics. In this case, the top Democratic contenders are a trio of septuagenarians (okay, sorry, Hillary Clinton will be only 69 on Election Day) while another trio of afterthoughts battle to see who can secure two percent points in a tiny field. And I haven’t even gotten to Larry Lessig!
Meanwhile, recent head-to-head polling in keys states shows most Republican contenders outperforming Democratic front-runners, including the party’s odds-on favorite, Hillary Clinton. Yes, we’re a year away from the election, but eight years ago the narratives of the two primaries were totally reversed and inertia did indeed carry them through November. In 2008, a two-term incumbent looked as tired as ever and relieved to be entering his final year in office. His party’s favorites were old guys who were far less interesting than the electricity generated by the opposing party’s potentially historic candidates. The buzz and attention surrounding them continued right into the general election, where one of them won handily.
But now the roles are reversed. Attention is on the energized Republicans as they “trump” the Democrats — three of whom look way too similar, as my da Vinci-esque artwork shows — who are competing to follow their party’s tired, two-term president. The GOP is enjoying record debate numbers, meaning the Republican message is off to the races, which could crystallize much of public opinion before the Democrats even find their car keys. History might be repeating itself.
It’s time, therefore, for the Democrats to attempt the recapturing of the nation’s attention. What better way than a debate? Let’s take a look at the candidates, in reverse order of their Real Clear Politics national averages (in parentheses).
5. Lincoln Chafee (RCP Average: 0.2): Here’s my rather critical August profile of the former Rhode Island Senator and Governor. Nothing has changed since then. Of the last 25 national polls, he has polled 0 in 16 of them. Only once has he reached 2, and that was A) in a rare poll without Biden, and B) done by Rasmussen, so take it with less than a grain of salt. Still, he’s looking forward, not back, so what’s his plan tonight? Expect him to hit Hillary Clinton hard on her Iraq War vote. Back when he was a Republican in the Senate, he was the only member of the GOP not to vote for the war, and he recently slammed Hillary Clinton for voting for it, saying “I don’t think anybody should be president of the United States that made that mistake.” As a former Republican, he might also tout his unique experience working for both parties, allowing him to bridge the divide between them. (Not happening.)
4. Martin O’Malley (0.6): He’s ranked fourth among debaters in the RCP average, but he’ll get the number three podium due to which polls CNN is factoring into their calculus. That means he’ll be next to Hillary Clinton and look just as prominent as Bernie Sanders. From our perspective, Sanders will appropriately be to Clinton’s left. O’Malley will be to her direct right, but here the ideological visualization fails us. O’Malley has been running a campaign similar to Bernie Sanders’s. He’s a proud progressive. He has matched Sanders’s call for a $15 minimum wage. He’s the most vocal and detailed candidate on fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy. As governor, he helped pass marriage equality and abolish the death penalty in Maryland. This year he helped decriminalize marijuana in his state.Tonight, expect him to emphasize his liberal record while also pointing out he’s actually governed, unlike senators Sanders and Clinton. He might try to find a way of reminding voters that A) a “democratic-socialist” could face a rout in a general election; and B) Clinton faces major general election problems. His hope is that he could position himself as a liberal Democrat who can actually win.
3. James Webb (0.9): He’s ranked third by the RCP average of declared candidates, but due to the aforementioned CNN calculus, he’ll be marginalized to an outer podium like Lincoln Chafee. For a while, I’ve felt that Webb has the best chance of the afterthoughts to eventually gain some momentum in this primary. He has to hope Biden never enters the race, because Webb is the candidate who can fill that void. His career was built appealing to the working class man. It’s been noted on several occasions how the Democrats have a huge demographic problem with white men. Jim Webb might be the party’s best candidate to combat that. His chances for the nomination are higher than Chafee and O’Malley because he’ll be the only one coming at Clinton from her spacious right. She’s pretty liberal herself, remember, so the trio to her left are trying to elbow their way into a small and crowded space. Webb will attack her other flank, where he’s all alone and can unite more moderate anti-Clinton dissenters. Plus, if general election polling ever looks bad enough for the Democratic front-runners, the party might scare and turn to someone like Webb, who probably has the most upside in a general election due to his ability to win crossover voters. Of tonight’s bottom tier, I think he’s the one we’ll be talking about most tomorrow morning.
2a. Joe Biden (18.6): Not debating. Not a candidate. His greatest impact on the race so far? Limiting Hillary Clinton’s numbers and allowing Sanders to look more viable. Just in case he makes up his mind today, CNN has a podium on hold. It would be quite the story if that’s his plan. To declare and then debate hours later with tons of adrenaline? He’d get a huge bump in the polls and supplant Sanders at number two by the end of the month.
2. Bernie Sanders (25.4): The man who has upended the Democratic coronation. I already wrote many words about how he’s extremely unlikely to win the nomination, and I’ve since seen nothing to back off that assertion. He could win Iowa and New Hampshire — his bread and butter as the whitest liberal states in the country — but his huge deficits almost everywhere else will still limit him to a handful of states nationally. Tonight, expect him to hammer home his consistency. He held liberal positions before they were cool. Clinton has rightfully taken a lot of flack for her evolution on the issues, a pattern that came up again last week with her unabashed — some might call it quintessentially Clintonian — reversal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. For so many issues, it seems she is just putting down new roots where Sanders has already built a home and raised a family. Sanders will welcome her to the party, but he’ll also remind voters who sent out the invitations.
1. Hillary Clinton (42.0): Tonight, her challengers will repeatedly hit her on that lack of consistency. Clinton has two options for a defense. Option 1) She could stay on message, sit on her lead, and hope that the new tourniquet on her once hemorrhaging support holds firm. (After a summer of steadily evaporating national leads, the last five polls see her holding steady at about a 20-point advantage.) She still has a big lead. She still has the southern firewall. Everything will be okay.
Or, she could go with Option 2) The best defense is a good offense. Does Chafee really want to talk about consistency? Then he might want to explain being a Republican, Independent, and Democrat all in the last 15 years. Martin O’Malley wants to talk about being a good Democrat? Then he might want to explain why a core Democratic demographic, African Americans, are furious at O’Malley’s record. Jim Webb thinks he’s the most electable candidate? What’s the point if he’s not even a consistent Democrat, including being against affirmative action, a champion of gun rights, and he once called Ronald Reagan one of his two favorite twentieth century presidents.
Oh, and Bernie Sanders wants to talk about being late to the party? He was literally late to the Democratic Party. In fact, he he’s still an Independent. His tumultuous past with the party should give most Democrats pause. He has a history of ripping the party, including calling it “morally bankrupt.” Maybe O’Malley put it best when he boasted, “I choose to be a Democrat, not just in presidential years, but in every year of my life.” Sanders’s history of being critical of the party from which he now asks a nomination is hypocritical bordering on Trumpesque. You might argue that if he wants to effect change on a large scale, he must join one of the two major parties so he can become a national official, but he has specifically said, “You don’t change the system from within the Democratic Party.” If Clinton wants to hit back, “Bernie Come Lately” is a big target.
Listen, I know it’s only five candidates and none of them are named Donald, but it’s still setting up to be an interesting debate. Can they approach the viewership of the GOP debates? Not likely. But they can start to needle their way back into the public consciousness. Tune in.