Let’s agree, if just for the sake of argument, that it’s still too soon to write off the bottom half of the 23-person Democratic field — meaning those, like John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, who are polling in the barely visible 0-to-1 percent territory.
Sure, it’s tempting to write them off. We’re pretty sure we already know who the top 7-8 Dems will be. But history, reliably on hand to ruin a solid narrative, tells us that early front-runners often disappear (Jeb? Rudy? Muskie? Howard Dean?) and someone like Jimmy Carter or Michael Huckabee comes from nowhere to contend, although the nowhere candidate may have already announced himself in Mayor Pete. Buttigieg gives Hickenlooper and Bennet hope, maybe especially Bennet, who can compete in the wonkish Warren-Buttigieg-Booker wing.
We’ve got a long way to straighten this all out, but, as Yogi Berra liked to say, it’s getting late early. The good news is we’re nearing the end of Stage One of the primary race — when the field came together — and heading toward Stage Two, the debates, which should begin the culling process.
Hickenlooper and Bennet — each polling under 1 percent — are clearly in jeopardy, but both got a break by drawing their way into the second-night debate on June 27. The two nights of debates will each feature 10 contenders. But, by luck of the draw, four of the five top polling leaders — Joe Biden, Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Kamala Harris — will be in the second debate. Warren is the lone polling leader in the first debate.
On the upside, Hick and Bennet will get ratings on the second night. On the downside, with the polling leaders on stage, they may have a harder time getting noticed. I mean, Biden and Sanders have never been on the same stage in this race. It will be hard to focus on anything else. But if Bennet and Hickenlooper are going to play with the big boys (and girls), this is their chance.
So where does this leave us? This way: Trump is the most vulnerable incumbent since at least Carter while Biden may be the most vulnerable poll-leader since Rudy. No wonder the field is so crowded.
We got two major hints Tuesday night at where the race is headed. In a Trumpian rally — what else? — Trump announced his re-election campaign, and if you had the stomach to watch it, you saw Trump spend the night airing grievances and blaming either the press or Mueller and his 13 angry Democrats or Crooked Hillary emails. It was back to the future, and if that doesn’t scare every Democrat and never-Trump voter, you’re not paying attention.
And we heard the report of Joe Biden speaking to some wealthy donors while taking a Bidenesque journey into tone-deaf territory. In describing how as a senator, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the Senate could still get things done, he worked with Mississippi Sen. James Eastland and Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge. Of Eastland, he said, “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.'” For those who remember— which, I concede, is an ever-shrinking subset — these were two of the leading arch-segregationists from the Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party and a stain, even now, on the party’s name.
And, in 2019, when you’re the old white guy in the race, the last thing you should want to do is brag about taking lunches with racists while making seriously unfunny jokes about not being called “boy.” Which is why I predict that Biden is definitely vulnerable.
But, taking the local angle, it’s pretty obvious how Hick plans to get attention on the stage —prolonging his ongoing war with Bernie Sanders and with the prospect that Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, will bring socialism to America. He’ll almost certainly get asked about it.
This is Hick’s Hail Mary pass. He’s already up to Plan D. I’m old enough to remember when he said he didn’t want to be labeled as a capitalist because labels are “silly.” That was then. Now the socialist label, which differs significantly from democratic socialist by the way, is at the center of Hick’s campaign.
Before going all in on anti-socialism, the only lasting impression he had made on the trail was his story of once having taken his mother to see “Deep Throat.” And while it’s true that America has never been socialist and, I can pretty much guarantee, won’t become socialist any time soon, Hick is betting that this argument will somehow separate him from the other-than-Bernie, socialist-free pack of Democrats.
In fact, Hickenlooper, whose political career is a study on how to avoid confrontation, intentionally got himself booed by an audience of California activists for his anti-socialist stance and his assertion that many contenders had foolishly bought into Sanders’s agenda.
When he says it next week, Sanders will be there on the stage with him, meaning there’s every chance an actual debate could break out.
Can Hick win that debate? Can Hick force others on the stage to join him in declaring their anti-socialist bona fides? Or will Sanders wipe the floor with him declaring that his brand of democratic socialism (at least as he describes it these days) is no more than a continuation of FDR’s New Dealism and that Hick’s anti-socialism reeks of Red Scareism?
You might also note that Sanders is struggling to hold off Elizabeth Warren in the battle for the Democratic left. She has already declared herself a “capitalist to her bones” in contrast to Sanders. When Biden and Bernie face off, will anyone remember that Hick is even in the debate?
Meanwhile, Bennet, who also likes to mention that he’s not a socialist, thereby making it clear where Colorado’s politicians sit on the spectrum, will certainly make his argument against Medicare-for-all, which he says most Americans wouldn’t support if they understood it meant being forced to give up their employer-based insurance. Bennet wants to bring back the idea of a public option for anyone who wants it. Whether you agree with him or not, Bennet can make a strong argument on this.
Bennet, who started late because of his surgery for prostate cancer, is not quite in the same position as Hickenlooper, for whom this could be a make-or-break night, although he’ll get another chance in the July debate. But Bennet is close. Bennet will also slam Mitch McConnell and the Freedom Caucus — both slams sure to be crowd pleasers — as the real dangers to democracy in America, and without whom, he says, there wouldn’t even be a President Donald Trump.
From the start, Bennet conceded he was a long shot, but he said, looking at the field, he saw an entire lineup of long shots. That was true at the time. It might even be true now. But it won’t be true for too much longer.