Early Takes on the Democratic Frontrunners

So many candidates, so little time. That, I think, was the prevailing note of low expectations for the initial round of Democratic Party debates last week. Which made it all the more surprising that so much of substance seemed to be revealed—and then endlessly rehashed through the media thinkolator that saw pundits, academic debate experts, other politicians and your neighbors Sam and Myrtle weighing in on the event, often with wildly divergent views on what they had seen.

So much for anyone, at anytime, having the One True View of what happened and who “won.” 

Which makes it all the more fun and allowable for me, and you, and your crazy uncle in rural Mississippi if you dare ask him, to weigh in as we will. So that’s what I’ll do here, in a kind of impressionistic take on the major candidates and whatever else crosses my mind therefrom.



The Guy’s Guy Who’s Gay, and No One Cares—Mayor Pete: cool, even-tempered, Christian, soldier, brainy but never condescending, the very picture of unaggressive and unflamboyant, absolutely eviscerating the hard Christian right’s most un-Christian view of immigrants, blowing its phony “morality” to pieces, even though his strongest moment in my view was his response to the question of  why his police department’s black officers corps is so much smaller than the city’s black population.

“Because I couldn’t get it done,” he said, with a period at the end of that simple declarative sentence.


No evading, pontificating or blaming. Instead: honesty, humility and accountability. In a politician? Call out the spin doctors!

Notable, too: A gay man on stage in the year 2019 appears to be a viable candidate for the presidency. I find this astonishing, all the more so because I don’t believe his gayness even came up for mention. Yes, I know, it will if he is the nominee…But here he is: Serious Presidential Candidate.

When you feel really depressed about the General State of Things, remember that—and whether you could have even dared to predict it half a decade ago.


The Undynamic Duo—One word on Joe and Bernie: Old.

Two words: Make way.

Three words: Thank you kindly.

Harris is no doubt formidable, her prosecutor past making some lefties uneasy but clearly allowing her to avoid being Willie Hortoned while still working hard to project the emotion and real personhood that are essential qualities in this close-up media age.

It was a stark sight, I thought, all that relative youth up there, clustered on the sides of two very old people who would both be into advanced old-dom at 82 and 83 years of age when their first term as president would be drawing to a close. Do they have the energy, not to mention memory, to take on the hardest job in the world at a time when all their age peers in that world know exactly what it feels like to suffer the inevitable, inexorable decline that advanced age brings to everyone in this life?

Of course, Sanders seems to cover for his failing memory by endlessly repeating the exact same one talking point about Wall Street and corporate greed that he has been wringing the neck of for the past six years. Each and every time accompanied by a permanently hoarse roaring voice and an upthrust arm and index finger, seemingly jabbing through the television screen in a herculean effort to earn his bona fides as Haranguer-in-Chief.

Dear Senator Sanders: It makes people uncomfortable to be yelled at by anyone, at anytime. Please take due note.

Biden’s memory, on the other hand, is tarnished by “forgetting” to say a simple “I’m sorry, my bad” about some of the more egregious mistakes he has made (Anita Hill, the curiosity of trotting out the “local control” Republican talking point in a matter—busing—that is widely equated in his own party with civil rights).

Dear Mr. Biden: “I’m sorry” is only two words, and not all that hard to remember. Give them a try!


The Trap-Setter Snags a Big Clumsy Varmint—Kamala Harris seems to have enjoyed the strongest post-debate bounce in polls and pundit appraisals, and the trap she had constructed for Biden the moment the subject turned to his racial sensitivities (or lack thereof) was a thing of beauty—and no small amount of rehearsal. Ruthless, all the more so for how heart-felt it appeared to be, combining barbed if calmly stated criticism with the sense of hurt and woundedness the “little girl” whom she was would have suffered back on the bus that Senator Biden was willing to have taken away from her.

Biden responded with what he no doubt thought was strength and vigor but which only tightened the trap more severely around his flesh as he sang a paean to the “local control”  that racists have used since forever to oppress people they don’t want in their schools, neighborhoods or companies.

Harris is no doubt formidable, her prosecutor past making some lefties uneasy but clearly allowing her to avoid being Willie Hortoned while still working hard to project the emotion and real personhood that are essential qualities in this close-up media age.

A female friend of mine with prior experience working under Harris told me she is the most nakedly ambitious and ruthless person she has ever known, and that all the people in her office cheered when she won another position on her career path—so they could be rid of her. Others may call that the “fire in the belly” anyone with designs on the presidency should possess in abundance, but whatever it is, one thing we can all agree on calling it based on what we have seen so far: effective.



The Policy Wonk’s Electability Challenge—O.K., so both Harris and Elizabeth Warren are obviously battle-hardened veterans who won’t back down from whatever garbage missiles the sitting president will hurl their way from the teeming landfill that serves as his moral nexus. But why is it that so many Democrats otherwise kindly disposed toward Warren’s intelligence and political acumen remain nervous about her “electability” factor from a sheer persona standpoint?

After all, no such worries dog Harris, even though she shares the same gender and largely the same views on the policy issues of the day. Warren, though, is often described as whiny and hectoring, charges never, to my knowledge, leveled at Harris.

Could this actually get down to a matter of voice timbre? Physiognomy? Some ineffable something-or-other that makes one fierce person sound fierce while another equally fierce person sounds merely bothersome or irritating?

Whatever it is, the concerns are out there and widely shared among the public and the media class, and it is something Warren will have to overcome if she is to secure the nomination and then wrestle the presidency away from Donald Trump, a masterful mud wrestler who we know will stop at nothing, and stoop as low as he thinks he needs to, legal or not, to hold onto his place atop the trough.


Cory Carries It to the Cheap Seats—Senator Cory Booker also had a good night, 24 hours before those mentioned above (except Warren) took off the gloves and sparred more aggressively in the second night’s festivities. I’d watched him a handful of times before last week, that bald dome, youthful face and full-mouthed elocution cutting a generally impressive figure.

Wasn’t sure what it was about him that seemed slightly outsized until I realized how elaborately he phrases his sentences, projecting forcefully, never a slurred or inaudible word, as if he was playing to the very last row up in the rafters, un-mic’ed, in a large hall.

Then I thought: He must have some theater training, yes? Checked his bio and found none, though I learned that he was an all-American high school football player and then tight end for Stanford University, where he also served as senior class president and scored both B.A. (poli sci) and M.A. (sociology) degrees. That all led to a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford before he returned to Yale Law School, where he operated free legal clinics for low-income New Haven residents while earning his J.D. degree.

Check, check, check,  box after box for that hella background that shines so brightly on a resume. A man used to being looked at and listened to. Now he is out to make the most of that chance.

One small piece of advice for you, Senator Booker: Don’t start thrusting your arm and pointing your finger every time you want to make an important point. Somehow, they all wind up sounding less important that way. (See, “Sanders, Bernie…”)


Two Notable Opening Gambits That Flopped Miserably—Beto with a whole Spanish language spiel coming out of his mouth first thing? Kirsten Gillibrand forcefully interrupting on the very first question of the night, which had been directed to Biden, given his status as front-runner in the polls?

Beto’s move was blatant pandering and showmanship, Gillibrand’s merely rude. Both of them eliciting groans from where I sat, relegating them to also-ran status even before we really got to appreciate how, you know, nice looking they are.

Yes, appearance and presentation and tone all matter. Perhaps too much, actually, but that is the world we live in and the brains and sensibilities our evolution and genes have bequeathed us.

For 2020, though, the stakes are ridiculously high, the opponent will be of blackened heart, and whoever emerges as the nominee will have to be firing on all cylinders to beat him, as the car mechanics like to say.

Last week, as the gentlemen/women started their engines, I was left with the feeling: Interesting times ahead, several of these people have a decent shot, and yow, there were a lot of people auditioning—quite well, I thought—for cabinet positions up there!


Couldn’t find a good live performance version of this classic cautionary tale for liberals, but the sound here is great, and the lyrics are absolutely key to grasping the important self-reflection they inspire…


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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.

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15 comments to Early Takes on the Democratic Frontrunners

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I could say “you nailed it,” because my own responses were very similar. Two most memorable moments were “that little girl was me” and “because I couldn’t get it done.”
    A Kamala/Buttigieg ticket would be thrilling. For now it’s my hope.

    I don’t want it to be true that Liz Warren’s voice timbre is her downfall, but I have the uneasy feeling it might be. She is, however, a fabulous senator who is, happily, MY senator. She could be amazing as Commerce, Labor (though I’d put Castro there), lots of options. She’s power-packed smart and we need her, president or somewhere close by.

    I loved Bernie and worked my tail off to get him elected. Unfortunately, the DNC worked to NOT get him elected, as did other groups, and countries. I wish he would feel proud at how profoundly he has shifted the country’s focus from 2015 to 2019.

    I also worked my butt off for Beto to be **Senator.** He almost won, and in many emails I implored him to please run again against John Cornyn. I am frustrated that his ego allowed him to think, “Yes there are already 22 candidates, and yes I haven’t really established myself as well as many of them have…but heck, I’m special and have more to offer.” He looked and sounded really bad last week, and I hope he stops raisingmoney for himself soon.

    Klobuchar, Beto, Sanders, Booker (though I also love him) – we need them in the Senate!
    If the many candidates who will have to drop out would just all aim in the same direction – we’d have a shot at the Senate *and* have some seriously good cabinet members. Castro, even Biden, would add to the bench strength. If this team can eventually all pull for the same candidate and work like hell together – THAT would be what this country needs.

  • Susan  says:

    Hi Drew
    Thanks for the assessment of this big crowd of democratic nominees! I did not watch the debates because there are way too many people for me to be interested in at this point.

    I’ve never been a fan of Kamala Harris, and her antics following the debate really put me off. Those t-shirts made it to market a little too quickly and a little too much in bad taste for my liking:


    Yes, I would agree with you, very interesting times ahead!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Political science research, magazine articles, post-debate commentaries, op-eds, blogs and pundit reflections afford the voting public opportunities to evaluate or re-evaluate Presidential candidates. The website–https://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/presidential-debates-effects-research-roundup/–synthesizes the impact of debates on elections from an historical perspective. For instance, political scientist Thomas Holbrook points out that the first debate is the most important because it introduces voters, perhaps for the first time, to a particular candidate’s position on an issue like Medicare for All. Holbrook goes on to state, “The first debate is held at a time when voters have less information at their disposal and a larger share of voters are likely to be undecided.”

    Biden, as you accurately mentioned, blew it big time on the issue of civil rights and “local control.” If he was going to take a position on busing, he never should have framed it in that manner: Brown v. Board of Education. James Meredith. Little Rock’s Central High School. Jim Crow laws. Woolworth’s lunch counter. It’s an endless list of injustices. Biden should have moved the debate in the direction of busing’s efficacy. An example of this would have been a discussion of what happened to the Inglewood (suburb of Los Angeles) School District in the mid-1970’s. The courts ordered Inglewood to desegregate its two high schools–black Morningside High School and nearly lily-white Inglewood High School. The district ultimately implemented a plan that required half of Inglewood High School attend Morningside and vice versa. The community, as you might have surmised, erupted in anger. Although there was outrage from both sides, the loudest voices belonged to the white parents. Anyway, making a long story short, within a few years both high schools were black. White families sold their homes and moved elsewhere. Why Biden decided to argue his point of view from “local control” is beyond me!

  • kirkthill  says:

    For me, Harris seemed to be the best candidate to handle Trump, which is most important.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Jeanette, good point on how Bernie has shifted the conversation, and I do think he would have won against Trump four years ago, alas. But time seems to have passed him by, and I do wish, while he is still here, that he would do a much better and more concise job defining “democratic socialism” to distinguish it from images of collectivism and the Soviet-style dictatorship that Republicans are continually (and mostly successfully) painting it as. As for Beto, I have long wanted to ask him: “Do you really think six years in the House qualifies you to be president?” Seems too audacious by half to me…

    Susan, that’s the big question about Kamala: how authentic was any of that interchange with Biden? Seemed awfully calculated, but it may not matter, given how calculation seems to be the coin of the realm in politics and media these days. I was alarmed, however, to see her hand shoot up with the Medicare for all/no private option question, only to see her try—fumblingly—to walk it back the next day. Surprised at that lack of calculation and forethought on such a fundamental question!

    Robert, thanks for that walk thru history. We saw that Inglewood situation replicated time and again in busing’s troubled history. And I’m concerned about it rearing its head again now, however tangentially. I think the Repubs will make mincemeat out of it with fence-sitting voters and would love nothing more than for Dems to keep alluding to it. Meanwhile, yes, Biden and his people should have seen that question coming and developed a far better response to it. Why did all his highly-paid handlers not better prep him?

    Kirk, that is the million$ question, and I am all in on whomever provides the best chance of ending Trump’s Reign of Distemper & Chaos. Thanks for pointing to the essential issue amidst the current spectacle of 24 candidates!

  • David Jolly  says:

    Andrew, I agree with your take on the debates. Though Kamala stole the second show, I was most impressed with Pete’s response to the question re paucity of black police in South Bend. A rare display of political humility – who knew a presidential candidate could take responsibility for a bad situation? (Also found your friend’s comments on working with Kamala pretty concerning. Maybe some would argue that, besides an ego larger than must-win Ohio, ruthless ambition is a prerequisite to running for President?)

    Want to thank you for the link to Phil Och’s “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” It’s razor-sharp funny, still timely, and I hadn’t heard it in decades. Even better, though, it linked me to another Ochs song that I’d nominate for one of your greatest-songs-ever columns. “Changes” has beautiful poetic lyrics about time (the dark side of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game”?), a simply gorgeous melody, and the haunting vibratto of Ochs’s voice, all of it more touching given the tragedy of his abbreviated life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlVfVBFdMaM

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Beto’s Presidential bid, at least for the 2020 election, is in trouble, borders on “audacious” and in the end will likely fail. However, Abe Lincoln wasn’t a bad President, and he served just one term (1847-49) before deciding to return to Springfield and practice law. Interestingly, Beto like Lincoln lost his bid to become a U.S. senator. As an historical side note, only three men (Lincoln, Hoover, and Trump) were elected President without having previously been a war hero, governor, U.S. senator or vice-president.

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Oops. James Madison was never a war hero, governor, senator or vice-president,. He was Jefferson’s Secretary of State.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Good to hear from you, David, and thank you for that Ochs link, which I hadn’t seen and just about wrecked me here with its beauty and his own life’s tragic underpinning, oh my…

    It was interesting to see some critics cite Mayor Pete’s humbleness as his weakest moment in the debate, while you, I and others considered it quite the opposite. Such a strange and sad equation: humility = weakness. Toxic masculinity, anyone?

    Robert, I had just a day or two ago run into that revelation (for me, anyway), that Lincoln had been a one-term rep prior to becoming prez. But then Lincoln was…Lincoln, probably enough said there, him standing in stark contrast, seems to me, to Beto, who strikes me as simply lacking in the gravitas I look for in true leaders. Cuts a dashing enough figure, to be sure, but is there any cowboy under that hat? I’d truly like for him to prove my suspicions wrong, though, and it certainly is a long enough campaign for him to do so (provided he survives this early rough stretch). Thanks, as always, for your juicy historical tidbits.

  • Andrea  says:

    What a great dissertation Andrew. Unfortunately, I unable to watch the debates. At this point, I am drawn to Julián Castro as his ideas are sensible, he answers questions directly and he has experience as he worked in the Obama Administration. No fluff here!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I’m very glad you mentioned Castro, Andrea, because I was impressed with him, too, and meant to put him in this mix but ultimately didn’t find a place for him. Knew next to nothing about him prior to the debate, but thought he comported himself well. A serious man. Many in the chattering class felt the same way, too, but for some reason, he got zero bounce in subsequent polls. Lacks enough national stature at the moment, it would seem, but that’s not anything that maybe a vice-presidential nomination couldn’t fix in a hurry?

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Whoa! no mention of Marianne Williamson? Ross Douthat of NYT suggested to today that she may have appeal for “wellness moms” and left-leaning spiritual woo-woos: this is surely an oversight on your part. She stunned me in the debate with her singular and quite visible non-belongingness. I was embarrassed for her and for anyone who may think she should continue on this path. Happy to see Swalwell saw the light and has now dropped out; am hoping the same for Hickenlooper. Hick should withdraw, run for Senate seat in Colorado and beat the hell out of incumbent embarrassment to our state, Cory Gardner(R). I love having Warren in the Senate and continue to suspect that she can be most effective in that role. Same may be true for Harris: get her on key committees to prosecute the hell out of the legions of snakes appearing before Senate Committees. Mayor Pete is a complete breath of fresh air. Blog readers who have not yet seen Rachel Maddow interview of Pete, find it asap. Joe and Bernie: both could have won in 2016. Now, meh.

    • Jeanette Millard  says:

      All interesting observations. So whom are you wanting to support?

      • Andrew Hidas  says:

        Jay, as with not mentioning Castro, I fully intended to address the spectacle of having the likes of Marianne Williamson in a presidential race, but she was so far out there on the edge and ignored, poor thing, I just didn’t know what to do with her. Funny thing is when I heard her interviewed on Terry Gross in an intimate, one-on-one setting, I really couldn’t find much to argue about with her, except for the fact that no matter how spot-on she is about love ultimately driving out hate (assisted by an able army on occasion, I would like to remind her), she is simply not in any way qualified to be president.

        Such a strange assumption, that politics isn’t really a profession that requires immense learning, experience and skill (to do well, that is). We would never hire an untrained carpenter or accountant, but somehow, the most powerful job with the most influence and burden in the entire world can be done by some amateur who walks in the door from owning a bunch of pizza joints (Where art thou, Herman Cain?) or from spouting New Age pablum for the masses.

        That’s exactly what we’ve got now in reverse, though much worse than Williamson: a bankruptcy-prone, serially failed businessman with a barely shaped humanity and no political experience spouting Old Time MAGA pablum mixed with rage to fire up the masses. And we both know how that’s workin’ out…

        Looking forward to more debates, but we don’t get there till September, do we? Darn!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Thank you for noting the importance of experience and know-how with respect to political leadership. It is far too often overlooked. Trump rode (rides) the wave of the masses who think business acumen (of which The Don appears to have little) is the key to any kind of leadership role: fallacious thinking, to be sure. During my career in higher education leadership I was often frustrated (aghast, really) at the suggestion from Trustees, alumni, and State Legislators that we just needed to “run it like a business.” There was little understanding or appreciation for the challenges of shared governance on a college campus. Many governing boards, including the one to which I reported, often felt campus leadership would best be served by business leaders with no ties to, or background in, higher education. My successor was a former insurance company executive (hired despite faculty objections (or perhaps because of said objections). I suppose it was a Trustee Board move to “drain the swamp” of those who worked within the culture of higher education. After 11 years of service in the highly complex environment of public higher ed (students, parents, faculty and staff, alumni, community, local government, state government, Governing, Foundation, and Alumni Boards), it is unlikely that I could land a position leading an insurance company or a bank (nor should I or would I). Clearly, you’ve struck a nerve with me here on respect for experience, skill and knowledge in the realm of political leadership. Please pardon my rant.

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