The first Democratic presidential debate happened this week, and compared to the likes of the two-part, fifteen-person monstrosity that their counterparts managed to cobble together and inexplicably hold in front of an airplane fuselage earlier this fall, Tuesday’s intimate, five-person affair sort of felt like a book club meeting where none of the participants read their chapters for the week, and a good chunk of the membership had mysteriously called in sick a few hours before. It was almost as if the other candidates — surely there must have been other candidates, right? — who were also scheduled to take CNN’s stage at the Wynn Las Vegas got lost in the labyrinthian casino, shrugged in unison, and started playing craps with Don Lemon.
Yet, upon further review of the tape, the following list of debaters is, incredibly, complete:
- Clear frontrunner Hillary Clinton;
- Bernie Sanders, the independent Vermont senator who is somehow an actual avowed socialist elected to national office, because Vermont;
- Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor whose entire presidential campaign may or may not be his latest doomed attempt to be known for something other than being the inspiration for Mayor Carcetti from The Wire;
- Jim Webb, who finds icebreakers on national TV about killing people to be just the cat’s pajamas, and who also probably regularly says “cat’s pajamas”; and
- Lincoln Chafee, who was just happy to get an invitation considering he can barely keep track of which political stripes he’s decided to wear that day.
That’s it! That’s everyone who came! Chafee, who only made this column’s presidential flow chart as a joke, actually managed to comprise 20% of the evening’s participants. If this had been a frat party, the members would have resigned themselves to their middling popularity, turned down the music, and started drunkenly playing video games by 9:30.
Press coverage of the event, particularly when compared to the Republican fireworks shows, was tepid; a few media outlets ventured that maybe Sanders won, but most agreed that Hillary did everything right, and nobody even bothered to take the time to point out that Webb, Chafee, and Carcetti all lost. We emerged from the Wynn, blinking and bleary-eyed, in the same boring position in which we were before: a presumptive nominee in hand, a challenger who hangs around just enough to make things interesting but not enough to actually come closing to winning, and three empty suits. This is not good for anyone, and it is why, more than ever before, Joe Biden needs to run for president.
People have been ready for this entrance for some time; the simultaneously bemusing and poignant fact that CNN had on hand an extra lectern at the debate if the Vice President were to declare at the last minute and crash the party speaks not only to the respect Biden has earned from pundits but also to just how absurdly thin the pool of attractive candidates is. But, alas, the saddest lectern remained unused; the Biden camp remains silent, and he let loose with the scorching take Wednesday afternoon that, in his judgment, “all did well” in their first debate together.
Whatever. He’s still thinking it over, I guess. Yet, for some reason, plenty of commentators took an additional angle on debate coverage and decided to pronounce that because Biden didn’t show up to Tuesday’s debate, he’s firmly lost the opportunity to enter the race. NPR declared that “Joe Biden’s Window May Have Just Closed”; the Washington Post opined that “Joe Biden’s Moment May Have Just Passed,” and over at theBoston Globe, “After Hillary Clinton’s Strong Debate, Joe Biden’s Path Got Steeper.” By Wednesday morning, copy editors were running out of path-related metaphors to use in order to declare the Vice President’s candidacy over before it even started.
What? Why? Hillary Clinton, by all accounts, gave a fine performance at the debate. But at this juncture, the only way any of these men who are largely indistinguishable from Men’s Wearhouse store managers were going to overtake her is if she led off with her own Michael Scott-esque rendition of a certain famous Chris Rock routine. To date, Clinton has done very little to generate any more buzz than that which she already enjoyed by virtue of opening as the presumptive favorite. In fact, for all of her myriad qualifications for the office, she has in recent months been plagued by controversy that would be more than sufficient to absolutely bury any of the many candidates — on either side of the aisle — who are objectively less qualified than she is. Her incumbency advantage is great for her for now, and it’s certainly not her fault that she’s so firmly in the lead. And I think Hillary Clinton would be a wonderful president and a strong nominee for whom I would certainly vote. But a total absence of meaningful competition in the primary process is not going to make her into a sharp, seasoned candidate for the general election, particularly when whoever emerges victorious from this Hunger-Games-meets-The-Apprentice bloodbath that is the Republican primary is going to be absolutely raring to go come next summer.
Joe (if Sarah Palin can call him that, then you and I can, too) would change all of that. He is one of the longest-tenured senators in U.S. history, a skilled lawmaker and negotiator who has repeatedly earned respect from his peers in both parties. He has extensive executive experience, a strong foreign relations background, and chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. On the intangibles side, he firmly crossed into that enviable, rarefied air in which he has managed to forge a reputation not only as an effective politician but also as an everyman who does cool things like curse when he’s excited and show up as himself in hilarious TV cameos . He’s an extroverted former college football player with whom people identify, and he loves talking to people, giving hugs, and going off-script. Moreover, he has wanted to be president for decades, and the only difference between candidate Biden when he had the profound misfortune of running into the unstoppable political force that was Barack Obama in 2008 and candidate Biden now is that, since then, he’s managed to be a successful Vice President for two terms. In short: there’s a lot to like here.
I think Joe Biden would be a great president. But I know he would be a great presidential candidate. And right now, that’s what the Democratic party desperately needs. Biden’s status as a political heavyweight and an instant contender would immediately force Hillary Clinton to be the best candidate she can be. There would be no more strategic silence, no more tepid responses to controversy, and no more sitting back and waiting for her opponents to talk more about their experiences killing people as American looks on in stunned silence. Biden’s mere presence would transform this Democratic primary process from a drawn-out, anticlimactic coronation into a real competition, and that’s what voters deserve.
I have no idea if Joe Biden would be a better president than Hillary Clinton. But the best case scenario is that he proves himself to be a better candidate, and he wins, and if that happens, then great. The worst case scenario is that by taking one last shot at a position he’s coveted for so long, Joe Biden forces Hillary Clinton to be the best candidate that she can be, instead of the merely fine candidate that she is. Do it, Joe, you blue-eyed handsome devil. And remember, your absence from one stupid, poorly-attended book club meeting in Las Vegas doesn’t mean a damn thing.