Since the summer, Democrats have asked one question about their presidential primary: Will Joe Biden run?
Some of this was a simple longing for a wider race beyond Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Some of it was interest in Biden, the person. How would this vice president, with his honesty and vulnerability, fare in a contest with Clinton? Would he upend the contest with authenticity?
But much of it—the part that brought donors and operatives to the table—was worry. Democrats were worried about Clinton. Worried that Sanders would kill her campaign, worried that the email scandal might do so first, and worried that—at some point—Clinton would fall under the weight of her baggage. Biden was a safety valve for the Democratic Party, a hedge so that if Clinton left the race, a competent and mainstream Democrat would take her place.
As of the first Democratic presidential debate—held Tuesday in Las Vegas—Biden wasn’t in the race. But then, the evening’s events showed that Democrats don’t need him. If there’s anything to take from the 2½-hour match between Clinton, Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee, it’s that Clinton is the front-runner for a reason, and there’s no room for Biden.
Sanders was passionate, and O’Malley was an able voice for left-of-center (but not “socialist”) Democrats. But neither touched Clinton, who outclassed them with policy mastery and impressive political deftness. In the first hour, Clinton parried CNN debate moderator Anderson Cooper on her alleged opportunism—“I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”—and turned Obama’s decision to enlist her service at the State Department into an immunity pendant on the Iraq war (“[President Obama] valued my judgment”). She dominated the stage on foreign policy and national security, areas where Sanders could express broad themes but wasn’t prepared to talk specifics. And on issues where Sanders is actually comfortable—social policy and Wall Street regulation—Clinton held her own, going into the weeds to press her case for shrinking banks and reducing college tuition. That’s not to say Sanders was irrelevant—he was a major presence on the stage—but he wasn’t prepared to challenge an experienced candidate like Clinton, who spent months debating against Barack Obama, John Edwards, Biden, and other challengers in the 2008 primary.
Which gets to a key point. As a candidate in the invisible primary of jockeying and influence-building, Clinton muscled more credible competitors out of the race early. Sanders is a strong candidate. But he isn’t Obama, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, or Biden, or even former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. If Clinton was relaxed and confident, it’s because—as a strong, smart debater against a field of national newcomers—she could afford a looser attitude. At the same time, Clinton didn’t avoid conflict. Exploiting Sanders’ votes as a senator from rural Vermont, she attacked him on gun control, taking a hard line against the National Rifle Association and making Sanders look like the opportunist in the argument. Likewise, she handled O’Malley’s Iraq criticism with a quick note that the former Maryland governor endorsed her in the 2008 primary.
With that said, these moments of true sparring were few and far between. Throughout, Cooper gave the most credible candidates a chance to attack each other. And on almost every score, they declined, moving the debate toward substance and in one case, media criticism. O’Malley stood largely as a bona fide Clinton defender, landing his occasional attacks on Sanders or the other candidates and largely staying in his own lane, away from Clinton. If O’Malley’s goal is a vice presidential spot or Cabinet position, he’s playing the game well.
As for the media criticism, Sanders earned the largest applause of the night when he denounced CNN for questions on Clinton’s email controversy. “Let me say something that may not be great politics, but I think the secretary is right,” he said. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” This is important; other than Chafee, who emphasized his “scandal-free” career, the Democratic field was united in dismissing email questions and the House Select Committee on Benghazi. To repeat myself from Monday, Republicans haven’t found wrongdoing with their Benghazi and email investigations, but through error and incompetence they’ve given Clinton a path to dismiss and ignore questions on either issue.
Clinton wasn’t perfect. A more skilled and knowledgeable debater could have challenged (even flustered) her on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Libya, areas where she was allowed to obfuscate previous positions and important details to avoid scrutiny. In a hypothetical debate against Marco Rubio, for instance, she could have trouble. But broadly, Clinton excelled in the forum. Democrats shouldn’t worry. And if Democrats aren’t worried, there’s no reason for Biden to run.
Two last points. First, it’s hard not to contrast this debate with its Republican counterpart. The GOP debates were dominated by trivia and Trump. Candidates like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie wrapped themselves in gauzy generalities—“What folks want in this country is somebody to go down there and get the job done”—while credible contenders like Jeb Bush held embarrassing standoffs with the real estate mogul on national television (“To subject my wife into the middle of a raucous political conversation was completely inappropriate, and I hope you apologize for that, Donald”). The Democratic debate had its share of silliness, but overwhelmingly, the candidates focused on concrete differences and detailed policies, sparring over the particulars of gun legislation, tackling questions on race relations and police reform, and discussing national security without the saber-rattling of the GOP’s conversation (“Weakness is provocative, and this Iranian nuclear deal is nothing short of catastrophic,” said Sen. Ted Cruz in the most recent GOP debate). And although Republican candidates have to fight to flank one another on the right, lest they’re knocked out by radicals like Cruz and Ben Carson, Democrats—even Sanders—swim mostly near the mainstream. On immigration, the minimum wage, Social Security, marriage equality, and the environment, Democrats are closer to middle American opinion than Republicans.
Put differently, it’s significant that two of the debaters onstage—Chafee and Webb—were former Republicans. And it’s significant that the most popular Republican candidates, thus far, are a brash showman and an extremist. As researchers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein demonstrate in their book, or as historian Geoffrey Kabaservice showed in his, or as we’ve seen with the collapse of House leadership and the rise of the fringe Freedom Caucus, the present-day GOP is an unprecedented political party, opposed to basic norms of compromise and governance.
Which leads to my final thought. In the best-case scenario, if Democrats win next year, they’ll have the White House and a small Senate majority. This makes passing legislation almost impossible. A Republican Congress—or even just a Republican House—will not pass universal prekindergarten or a comprehensive plan to subsidize college education. This raises a key question for Clinton, Sanders, and any other Democrat who wants to be president: How will you work your agenda through a gridlocked Washington? Democrats need an answer, because without one, their impressive plans are almost worthless.