Election 2016: At Long Last, the Democratic Race Gets Rolling
The presidential primary season has been something of a two-speed race this summer. The Republicans has been extremely frenetic, presenting a packed field stuffed with a wide array of sharp-elbowed characters. The Donald Trump Show has dominated the summer, throwing a spanner into the party establishment’s plan of anointing one of the more mainstream candidates. Meanwhile, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina have taken up strong positions right behind the uniquely-coiffed real estate mogul.
Among the “real” politicians, only Senator Marco Rubio can routinely boast double-digit support. Hardly what anyone expected at the start of the season. With several months to go before the primaries start, the maelstrom of the Republican race is likely only to get more chaotic.
The Democratic primary, on the other hand, is like a slow grind. In a field of also-rans beside frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the race has lacked the frenetic energy of the Republican contest. The one glimmer of excitement has come from Bernie Sanders, the avowedly socialist senator from Vermont.
Yet despite the hype surrounding his leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders has failed to win over anywhere near the number of Democrats he would need to win this race. The nature of the Democratic (and American electorate) makes it a virtual certainty that the Sander Express is going to run out of steam before long. In truth, the one lasting accomplishment of the Sanders campaign will likely be that it has transformed the Clinton campaign, both in how it operates and in how it is viewed by the public.
What began as a jubilant coronation transformed first into a grinding inevitability, then into stalling giant. A series of own-goals and poor PR management has sent the Clinton machine reeling. Hillary still has a commanding lead in national polls against Sanders, and absent a serious collapse, she remains the far-and-away frontrunner. The opening Sanders has created is not for himself, but for another Democratic candidate to emerge as an Anti-Hillary.
That brings us to the first debate, which is set to take place Tuesday night. The debate is largely billed as a head-to-head between Hillary and Sanders, but that is not really accurate. What the debate will really be about is whether Hillary can shake off the numerous scandals and pseudo-scandals that have plagued her campaign and again assert herself as the most realistic and serious candidate in the field.
If Hillary gives a bravura performance, she could rekindle some of the adulation that greeted her initial entry into the race, or at least reassert the sense of her own inevitability. She has all the natural advantages going into it. If the debate format is anything like its Republican counterparts, she will have the lion’s share of questions and attention, which can help to crowd out those around her. She also has real experience of a presidential debate stage, and memories of going head to head with a far more polished opponent.
Sanders, on the other hand, is more a polemicist than a debater. He preaches to the already converted, not to the undecided. His bailiwick is the pulpit, where he can shout out his ideas (including ones of extremely dubious merit or factual accuracy) without fear of direct rebuttal. Some of his simplistic “smash the One Percent” bromides may deflate when punctured by a well-prepped Clinton.
If Hillary stumbles, Sanders may gain a couple points. But the real winner in such a situation will be the candidate-in-waiting, Vice President Joe Biden. Biden continues to play footsy with the media and donors about getting into the race. A dominant Hillary on the debate stage may keep him out. If he sees weakness, he will pounce.
I would be remiss in a discussion of the Democratic debate not to discuss the other three men who will be sharing a podium with the two headliners. Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb will all be present. So far this season their campaigns have all been starved of oxygen. There is the off chance that one or more of them will ignite the public imagination on Tuesday night. More likely than not, however, they will continue on the sidelines. Of these three, O’Malley is the most likely to make a move. He is an accomplished speaker and political scrapper. If anyone can punch his way through the Hillary-Sanders faceoff, it is him.
Tuesday night may very well transform the face of the Democratic race. It could drive out the weakling campaigns, and it could bring in some new heavy-hitters. No matter what, the race will finally be in high gear.