Last week’s Democratic debate marked the end of the beginning of this winding campaign season. With so many miles to go, most of the events witnessed so far will fade from view. But we saw two trends likely to remain with us for the foreseeable future: the slow, steady decline of Joe Biden from frontrunner to afterthought; and the relish of the current occupant of the White House to seize back the national conversation from those seeking to unseat him.
Let’s begin with Biden. There has been plenty of discussion about the exchange with Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., that left him looking unsteady, unprepared and just plain old. Kudos to Harris for her preparation and execution of a takedown under the klieg lights. Moments like that don’t happen – they’re made behind the scenes through careful planning and practice.
Harris’ evisceration of Biden cut deep because it highlighted the two fatal flaws of his candidacy: he’s past his prime and he’s out of step ideologically with the party he wants to represent. Litigating the ins and outs of a topic as antiquated as busing reminded voters that the 76-year-old Biden has been in politics for nearly half a century. He’s been a denizen of D.C. longer than anyone under the age of 46 has been alive.
Biden’s rambling rebuttal was as unpersuasive as it was incoherent. Gone was the feisty 2012 Biden that bested Paul Ryan during the vice-presidential debate. Back then, if there was a knock on Biden’s debate performance, it was that he was overly combative. Not so this time around when bewilderment had replaced aggressiveness. Eventually, Biden managed to sputter out that he didn’t actually oppose busing in and of itself – he just didn’t want it at the federal level.
Rather than remind viewers of his eight years serving with the country’s first African American president, Biden fell back on a wandering recitation of his decades-long voting record. That’s not going to fly in a party intently focused on racial politics or a culture obsessed with political correctness where even Betsy Ross’ record on race is under scrutiny.
Not only does Trump possess the power of the bully pulpit, he relishes using it.
Of more concern for Team Biden should be the candidate’s actions in the ensuing days. After a chilly reception at the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, Biden made head-scratching comments about “gay waiters” and “gangbangers.” His remark that the “kid wearing the hoodie may very well be the next poet laureate and not a gangbanger” led to a sharp rebuke from New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, D-N.J., who observed the former VP is “not doing a good job of bringing folks together.”
Biden showed he doesn’t get it. Nor is he prepared to undertake the rehab needed to right the ship. As his fortunes sank amid Harris’ rise, Biden was nowhere to be found – either on the campaign trail or doing clean-up television interviews. The Washington Examiner noted Biden was outsourcing the dirty work to his surrogates.
His poll numbers took a hit across the board. Nationally, a Quinnipiac University survey showed Harris moving within two points of Biden’s lead. More worrisome for Biden was the slippage among African American voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed his support being cut in half post- debate.
In an ironic twist, the one person who ended up changing the conversation from Biden’s horrid performance was Donald Trump. The president’s groundbreaking moment at the DMZ in the early hours of Sunday quickly turned into wall-to-wall cable chatter to start the week.
Not only does Trump possess the power of the bully pulpit, he relishes using it. Unchallenged in his own primary, he’s running as both the incumbent and the insurgent, capable of disrupting even the noisiest of news cycles at a moment’s notice. That is why unseating a sitting president is so difficult – especially one as media savvy as the current commander in chief.
Trump’s consumption of news oxygen will survive the course of this election season. Joe Biden’s lead atop the polls will not. His candidacy as whole is unlikely to fare much better. Those are two trends that will define this election season, and last week they were both on full display.