Before we get to the heart of the Democratic debate, before we blame CNN moderators for a horribly disjointed night designed more for cable TV combat than for actual debate, before we explain how Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and …. John Delaney were somehow the stars of the night, before we even concede that Marianne Williamson, on more than one occasion, made sense, we’ll start with Colorado’s own John Hickenlooper.
Because if we don’t talk about Hick, I don’t know who will.
And the obvious question for Hickenlooper is what he’s going to do next. He already had one set of advisers tell him he ought to get out of the presidential race and run for the U.S. Senate. They walked away from his campaign when he told them he wouldn’t quit. I don’t really know his new advisers, but I assume — if they haven’t already — they’re trying to find the nicest way to tell him the same thing. Hick has gone from a would-be, at best, second-tier contender to an afterthought.
On a night when Hickenlooper had to show up big, on a night which the poll numbers and the fundraising numbers fairly screamed in tandem that this could be his last chance to show up, he didn’t show at all.
The scorekeepers noted that of the 10 candidates on the stage, Hickenlooper talked for the least amount of time. Yes, even a few seconds behind Williamson. Less than half the time Warren and Sanders spoke. If Hick’s greatest challenge as a politician is getting noticed, the biggest splash he could make is by saying, “Hi, I’m John Hickenlooper. I used to be running for president.”
This debate was set up for him, and others like him. The CNN format was basically this: Sanders and Warren have a lot of crazy, lefty ideas, so can the moderates on the stage tell us why Democrats must do better?
It was an uneven match. Warren was far the best debater on the stage. Bernie was the loudest debater on the stage. Delaney was the fiercest, and, even if he doesn’t make any headway in the polls, he did come out of it with the best gif of the night to show his grandkids. It came after a putdown by Warren, in which she said after one of Delaney’s complaints about her policies, “You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it.”
This is where Hickenlooper should have had a chance to shine, at the point where he has self-defined his campaign — the pragmatic, get-things-done guy on the stage, as author of the Colorado miracle, which, let’s concede, isn’t quite miraculous and for which Hick claims far more credit than he deserves. He did have one unintentionally funny moment when he said he was as progressive as anyone on the stage. He wasn’t. But that wasn’t his problem.
The weakness for all the moderates was that they kept saying that beating Trump is more important than dreaming big — they may be right — but none of them really explained what, other than beating Trump, people should rally around. Gov. Steve Bullock, who had his first debate in this campaign, had some moments. Rep. Tim Ryan also had decent moments. Hickenlooper’s big moment came when he and Sanders, at Hick’s request, competed in throwing hands up in the air, a Bernie-like wave. This was around the time Hick was saying of Medicare for All that you can’t simply spring such big changes on people, and Sanders was reminding him this was the anniversary of LBJ signing Medicare, which was a pretty big change to spring on people.
As we’ve said about a million times, debating is not Hick’s strength. He knows this. But when there are 20 people on stage over two nights, the debates offer the best chance to show yourself. Kamala Harris broke into the top tier on the basis of the first round of debates. Pete Buttigieg hasn’t figured out that he needs a viral moment or two, but he is articulate and demands that viewers pay attention. This is the role that Michael Bennet hopes to play tonight when there will be many more progressives on the stage, and Bennet will, in the best case, attempt to show that he can make the moderate case better than Joe Biden, with whom Bennet will share the stage.
It wasn’t the CNN moderators’ fault that Hickenlooper spoke so little. They were looking for on-air combat. Delaney was best suited for that. He came out swinging and rarely stopped. Amy Klobuchar, as another self-defined pragmatist, had the same problem, if not nearly as deep, as Hickenlooper, who’s not really a street fighter, and his best line on Medicare For All — “you might as well FedEX the election to Donald Trump” — was obviously rehearsed.
Maybe the most interesting thing that happened is that old friends Warren and Sanders didn’t challenge the other even once. They tag-teamed in putting down the rivals. I have a feeling — with no inside knowledge — that Warren had found herself forced to do a complete buy-in on Sanders’ Medicare for All if she wanted to compete for the progressive vote. You’ve watched Kamala Harris flip-flop on this. But, in any case, with Warren and Sanders making much the same case all night, Warren did the far better job, weaving in anecdotes, explaining her policies better than anyone else. I’m looking forward to seeing her and Sanders on the stage with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, almost certainly in the September debate, for which around half of the present debaters won’t qualify.
One of those who won’t qualify is Hickenlooper, who will be pressured again to run for Cory Gardner’s seat. Ezra Klein notes that Democrats would be better served in 2020 if Hick, Beto O’Rourke and Bullock each dropped out and ran for Senate. Meanwhile, I’ll give you New York magazine’s snarkiest-possible view of Hick’s campaign and his last-place finish in Tuesday’s debate:
“No one knows for sure who John Hickenlooper was, as the details of his existence fell out of collective memory ages ago. But scholars who have studied the few fragments that haven’t been lost to time say that he was most likely an older Caucasian man who enjoyed stammering complaints about socialism through a mouth chock-full of marbles.”
For a while now, Hick has been insisting he won’t give up on the race. But what happens when the race gives up on him?