Don’t know if you watched the Democratic presidential debate from South Carolina, but I did, and I’ll get kicked out of the blogger union if I don’t pass on some impressions.The format was unusual, with lots of questions demanding (unsuccessfully) short answers, with lots of jumping around on topics, and virtually no candidate interaction, other than that randomly forced by the questions. The two candidates that got occasionally annoying in defying the rules and talking too long were Bill Richardson and (this year’s ultimate protest candidate) Mike Gravel.And speaking of questions, they were occasionally framed and followed-up in ways that betrayed even the “gotcha” instincts of debate moderators. Joe Biden got a question on the Supreme Court’s decision on the congressional “Partial-Birth Abortion” ban that didn’t mention he voted for the ban in the Senate. Bill Richardson offered Whizzer White as a model for the nominees he’d put on the Supreme Court, and nobody noted that (aside from White’s status as something less than a constitutional giant) the Whizzer was a dissenter in the original abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade. And John Edwards was asked about his attitude towards hedge funds (a subject that most viewers probably knew little or nothing about) without any reference to his own employment by a hedge fund between his presidential runs.The post-debate punditry on the sponsoring network, MSNBC, seemed to endorse the obvious impression that nobody really won or lost, but also suggested that Hillary Clinton did the best job of meeting her goals. She was calm, reasonable, relatively responsive, and occasionally self-deprecating. And on a question that will probably be replayed a lot tomorrow, involving how they’d react to a second 9/11 where al Qaeda’s responsibility was clear, she used the muscle verbs “retaliate” and “destroy,” satisfying those who somehow think female candidates aren’t credible on the use of force (Richardson actually preceded her in immediately mentioning the use of force as a response, while Obama conspicuously omitted it).Obama had some of the most interesting moments. He initially flubbed a “gotcha” question about America’s “three top allies,” and didn’t mention Israel, but nicely handled the follow-up. He was more specific about health care than in past debates. And he did a solid job of answering questions about his position on Iraq.Edwards was subdued and wonky (I personally consider the latter a compliment). He gamely dealt with the inevitable and impossible questions about his expensive haircut. Casual watchers might have been struck by his answer to the question on Iraq, and his implicit challenge to Hillary, but he used almost exactly the same language as in past debates, so pundits and activists probably weren’t impressed.Biden had his classic sound-bite moment, answering a question about his ability to exercise verbal discipline with one word, “Yes.” Dodd went with his counter-intuitive but what-the-hell pitch about his experience. And Dennis Kucinich, partly thanks to losing his protest role to Mike Gravel, was more relaxed and reasonable sounding than I’ve ever heard him, both in the debate and in the post-debate interview.A quick review of the reaction in the progressive blogosphere shows a subdued take on the event. At DailyKos, a reader poll about “who won” shows (as of this moment) Edwards at 20%, Obama at 17%, Clinton at 11%, Gravel at 9%, Richardson at 6%, and the rest scattered, with 11% saying “nobody.” The main outliers here are HRC’s double-digit showing (she inevitably finishes at around 3%, well below Denny the K., in assessments of actual support), and Richardson’s pallid performance. I suspect the latter may have reflected the pub the debate gave to Richardson’s NRA support, and his reluctance to call for Alberto Gonzales’ resignation.So the debate probably moved few votes, but may slightly shift the future landscape. And I hope the formatters of future debates noticed what didn’t work tonight, and try to elicit longer, more substantive, and more interactive answers next time the donkeys gather.UPDATE 1: Richardson’s shout-out to the ghost of Byron White got noticed elsewhere. Scott Lemieux at TAPPED jumped on it before I did. And my buddy Armando at Talk Left went right out and said it disqualified Big Bill from the nomination. If this sort of buzz escalates, we’ll probably see some statement from Richardson’s campaign explaining where their candidate was going with that, before Brian Williamson told him to name someone actually still living. Maybe it was a Western Thing, since the Whizzer was from Colorado. But then William O. Douglas, a much safer liberal role model, was from Washington State. UPDATE 2: Matt Yglesias picked up on my reference to the question Obama got about our “three most important allies.” So naturally, I got kicked around some in Matt’s comment thread, based on the apparent belief that I was lecturing Obama about Israel’s value to the U.S. Actually, all I was doing was pointing to the silly “gotcha” by Williamson, who was clearly hoping Obama would forget to mention Israel (a bad idea in Democratic politics), as evidenced by his immediate follow-up with an Obama quote about the suffering of the Palestinians. Obama turned that around by replying that he was talking about the folly of the Palestinian leadership, and then said the appropriate things about Israel as a U.S. ally. For the record, like Matt, I think this was a ridiculous question. Ranking allies–or, as reflected in yet another dumb question posed to Biden–enemies, is not something any potential president ought to be doing in public.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
With all the attention being focused on the potential GOP presidential field for 2024, it’s looking like Joe Biden may run unopposed on the Democratic side, and at New York I compiled reasons why that’s a good thing.
The most dramatic development in 2024 presidential politics since the midterms hasn’t been Donald Trump’s official entry into the race or his loosening grip on the Republican Party (he’s still the GOP’s 2024 front-runner). It’s actually Joe Biden’s path to renomination suddenly clearing.
For much of the first half of 2021, there was anticipatory unhappiness with Biden among Democrats who figured his poor job-approval ratings would feed a huge Republican midterms wave. It did not, of course, turn out that way. Biden saw immediate benefits following Democrats’ better-than-expected midterms performance. Rather than triggering cries for his retirement, his 80th birthday on November 20 passed virtually without notice. And now any muttering about renominating Biden is muted. A few left-of-center commentators are massively overreacting to the developing scandal over classified documents turning up in the president’s Delaware garage. And, of course, there are still concerns about Biden’s age. But sources close to the president say he’s still planning to announce he’ll seek a second term “not long after” the State of the Union address on February 7. And unless a Democrat mounts a serious challenge very soon, which doesn’t seem very likely, he will quickly lock down the 2024 nomination while Republicans are still squabbling.
Although Biden isn’t universally beloved even among Democrats, his quiet renomination will be a good thing for the party in general, not just the president himself. Here’s why.
Incumbent presidents usually win reelection.
Trump lost his reelection bid, though by a much narrower margin than most objective observers expected. But the 44th, 43rd, 42nd, 40th, 37th, 36th, 34th, 33nd and 32nd presidents all won second terms. Since World War II began, only George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Trump served just one term — and Ford came very close to winning. Presidential incumbency doesn’t guarantee victory, but it’s undoubtedly a powerful asset.
There’s no consensus heir to Biden.
If Biden were to decide against pursuing a second term, his heir apparent would be Vice-President Kamala Harris. Her current level of popularity is low enough (a 40/53 job approval ratio) to encourage intraparty opposition, yet high enough to give her a decent chance. That means a contested nomination fight at a time when a head start against the GOP would be very helpful.
There is not, moreover, any consensus alternative to Harris, but there are some very ambitious Democrats who may jump at an opportunity to go for the big prize. These include 2020 retreads Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg; key-state governors Gavin Newsom of California, Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, and J.B. Pritzker of Illinois; and an assortment of dark horses. Progressives might insist on their own alternative to Harris, and they could look at long-time champion Bernie Sanders (who has not ruled out a third straight presidential campaign) and younger candidates like California Congressman Ro Khanna.
Whoever challenges Harris in a post-Biden scenario should be acutely aware of the risks of pushing aside the first Black woman — not to mention the first Asian American — to appear on a presidential ticket. If nothing else, the inevitable debate over that development will be a major, and perhaps turnout-depressing, distraction.
Without Biden, his party could fly apart.
As president, Biden has done a better-than-expected job of keeping Democrats (aside from the senatorial arch-heretics Manchin and Sinema) united. They remained united during the 2022 midterms, and House Democrats made a real impression staying unified behind Hakeem Jeffries during the 15-ballot Speaker’s election that displayed so much Republican ugliness.
Highly competitive 2024 presidential primaries could strain this hard-earned defiance of the “Democrats in disarray” meme. For starters, the fight over the very order of Democratic primaries could grow toxic if candidates perceive advantages in certain states going first. And without an incumbent president to paper over them, ideological disagreements on the future of the Democratic Party could quickly emerge.
With a divided federal government, Democrats don’t need a trendsetter.
It’s unlikely that Democrats will regain a governing trifecta anytime soon, so most of their presidential candidate’s 2024 agenda probably won’t be enacted. The Senate landscape in 2024 is terrible for Democrats. Winning back the House won’t be easy, either; 1954 was the last time House control flipped in consecutive elections, and 1952 was the last presidential election when House control changed.
In a period of divided government, having a president who can pay lip service to bipartisanship while using the limited powers he has to govern without Congress is probably the right combination.
Uncle Joe is a known commodity in another high-stakes election.
Ultimately, renominating Biden makes sense for the same reasons nominating him made sense in 2020. Taking a flier on a different candidate would be dangerous for Democrats, and for the country. While Democrats are very unlikely to win a trifecta in 2024, Republicans could do so quite easily with a presidential win, making their efforts to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; institute a national abortion ban; and install even more conservative judges much more feasible.
If and when Biden formally announces his candidacy for reelection, he should offer concrete evidence of his physical and mental fitness to endure four more years on the job, and express willingness to step aside if that’s no longer the case. That would reinforce his reputation as a regular Joe who loves his country more than he loves himself, unlike his predecessor and possible 2024 opponent. Democrats might imagine they could do better than offering voters a second Biden administration. But it’s a risky business.