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OP-ED: Democrats’ latest debate exposed a depressing dynamic in the 2020 field

Harry Seigel
New York Daily News (TNS)
From left, Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. raise their hands to answer a question Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, during a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The Democrats are doing it to themselves, again.

If 2016 was a lesson for America in what can finally happen after decades of letting bad deeds go unpunished, 2020 is reminding us, a year ahead of time, that learning that lesson doesn’t answer the question of how to avoid repeating it.

Once again, Democrats are torn between a profoundly flawed establishment figure and rivals offering a more radical vision. And once again, Donald Trump is mostly making it up as he goes, but this time with the power of the presidency behind him.

At Thursday’s debate, Uncle Joe — a swamp patriarch cosplaying as a common man, and one whose hair is fuller and skin tighter than they were 25 years ago — was energetic, forceful and staggeringly incoherent.

He said that nonviolent prisoners (he meant drug offenders, but forgot to say so) should never go to prison, which must have made Bernie Madoff smile if he was watching. That Afghanistan (he meant Iraq, I think) was really “three counties.”

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Responding to a question about his fierce opposition in 1975 to the idea of reparations for slavery, Biden said, among other things, that poor parents should “play the radio, make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, make sure that kids hear words.”

You can make too much of any one slip of the tongue, as Julián Castro did early on, crudely and wrongly suggesting that Biden, at 76, was having a senior moment about the particulars of his health care plan, but that was a lot of slips over one debate, let alone for a presidential frontrunner.

Let alone a frontrunner whose sole basis for running (for a third time, following his 1988 run ended by a plagiarism scandal, and his 2008 run in which he praised then Sen. Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American” presidential candidate “who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”) seems to be that he can beat Trump.

And pretty much the sole basis for the idea that Biden is best suited to beat Trump is his eight years under Barack Obama, who’s now producing things for Netflix and chilling.

Take that away, and Biden — whose problem was less single slips than long passages where he seemed to have as little idea as the rest of us of what he was going to say next, as he skipped between ideas and talking points like, well, a scratched record — would be running neck-and-neck with Bill de Blasio, who was sadly tweeting about the debate he didn’t make the cut to join.

Just behind Biden in the polls now are two candidates, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are offering unpopular health plans with trillion-dollar price tags that would take strong majorities in both houses of Congress to deliver, and a slew of also-rans delivering wildly pessimistic pictures of Twilight in America to Democratic voters in sour moods after seeing Obama followed by two years of complete Republican control of Washington.

When Biden, after going to the late-night circuit in 2016 to mourn the death of his son while also promoting a possible run that year, finally decided against it, he said, in part as a shot at Hillary Clinton, that “I believe that we have to end the divisive partisan politics that is ripping this country apart, and I think we can.”

“It’s mean-spirited, it’s petty, and it’s gone on for much too long,” he continued. “For the sake of the country, we have to work together.”

He’s right that there’s really no alternative to building political consensus, and it’s a shame that the Democratic frontrunner still committed to that idea is such a flawed messenger for it.

While the three-hour Democratic debate in Texas droned on, and on, and on, Trump counter-programmed with a speech of his own in Baltimore, where he repeated his nasty nicknames, complained about fluorescent lights making him look orange, and performed his golden oldies for the fans. It’s a toxic mix of viciousness, stupidity and entertainment value, and “the best is yet to come,” he promised.