Slate’s guide to the presidential candidates everyone’s talking about this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, in which we rank the 2020 presidential candidates according to four secret criteria that we keep encrypted: RWE%4, R#@F9, GSD$1X, and CX1FA. The encryption key is locked in a vault in Area 51 that is protected by alien monsters.
In today’s newsletter, we’ll look ahead to next week’s second round of presidential debates where, thanks to our good friends at the Democratic National Committee, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be on a separate stage from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. We’ll be looking to see whether Biden adequately prepared for this round or whether Kamala Harris will eat him for breakfast again. Donald Trump had another good week, but Cory Booker might punch him, or anyone who’s old, at any moment. Elsewhere, Julián Castro is looking for a real debate bump next week, Beto O’Rourke still exists, and Bernie Sanders paid up.
1. Joe BidenLet’s try this again.
When last they debated, Kamala Harris delivered a haymaker to Joe Biden powerful enough to knock about 5 percentage points off his national lead while picking up about 5 for herself. But Biden—or the Biden campaign—has done a somewhat surprisingly effective job of arresting his fall. The loosest mouth in Democratic politics hasn’t emitted anything too damaging since then, even while the candidate has eschewed his “stay above-the-fray” approach for a more aggressive posture toward those rivals trying to take him down—whether it’s Harris or Bernie Sanders on health care, or Cory Booker on criminal justice. Harris and Booker will be coming for Biden during next week’s debates, a fact that the Biden campaign seems prepared for, in issuing assertive prebuttals. But is the candidate, himself, prepared for it? If Biden lets his competitors run him out of Detroit, as they did in Miami, it might mark a permanent divorce between Biden and the Surge’s top ranking spot. And winning the Surge is the whole point of running for president.
2. Kamala HarrisYeah, but what have you done for the Surge lately?
The previous entry noted that Harris has picked up about 5 percentage points since the last debate. The problem, though, is that she had picked up about 10 points amid her post-debate boost last month and has since receded. Why did this happen? The likely answer is just that the spike reverted to its norm, because statistics are always doing things like that. But the annoying campaign reporter answer, a subfield in which all mathematical movement is traceable to some “gaffe” that most people didn’t even know occurred, involves her post-debate stumbles. Harris muddied the waters, once again, over her support for single-payer health care as well as on the very issue over which she bludgeoned Biden: busing. We’ll be watching to see if Harris’ opponents try to exploit these inconsistencies and to see how she responds to the sort of returned fire she didn’t face in the last debate.
3. Donald TrumpClearing the decks.
What was our president up to this week? Probably watching television in eight-hour increments atop a bed of hamburgers. But much was being done on his behalf. Congress reached a budget and debt-limit deal with White House negotiators, and since the teevee didn’t get too mad about it, Trump didn’t immediately seek to undercut it. Though Congress will still have to pass individual spending bills, the deal essentially rids the remainder of Trump’s first term of serious shutdown and/or debt default drama. Trump also was fortunate in that nothing particularly … how should we say … interesting came out of ex–special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Wednesday. So there wasn’t much of a spike in the number of pro-impeachment House Democrats afterward. This all made for an effective week of barn clearing for Trump ahead of election season. It is now up to him to devise new multimonth dingbat crises to distract from the typically easy job of winning presidential reelection in a booming economy, and we’re sure he’s got a long list of ideas.
4. Cory BookerDoes he have the guts to punch an elderly man?
In an interview with Seth Meyers on Monday, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker revealed that occasionally he is inclined to punch Donald Trump. “My testosterone sometimes makes me want to feel like punching him,” Booker said, “which would be bad for this elderly, out-of-shape man that he is if I did that, this physically weak specimen.” To be fair to Booker—IF WE MUST—he did say this as an introduction to his larger point, that giving in to violent, hateful thoughts would be bringing oneself down to Trump’s level. If, however, Booker does feel like acting on this impulse to punch an elderly man, he will have an opportunity to do so in Detroit, where he’ll be on the debate stage with Biden. The two have been at it again this week, with Booker calling Biden the “architect” of mass incarceration, and Biden responding that the Obama Justice Department released a report finding abuses within Newark’s police department, over which Booker presided as mayor. This could all explode onstage the second debate night; first-nighter Marianne Williamson won’t even be there to lighten the mood with a challenge to New Zealand.
5. Julián CastroA debate bump would be even nicer if it translated into—what’s the election thingy called?—“votes.”
Former San Antonio Mayor and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro put in one of the stronger performances in the first round of presidential debates, and he’s reaped certain benefits. His fundraising has picked up, he’s expanding his team and opening new offices, and, as the Washington Post reported, his crowd sizes have significantly increased. But the debate hosannas haven’t particularly boosted his support in subsequent polling, and support from confirmed human beings is critical to winning political elections. It’s also critical to making the next round of debates in September, and Castro will need a couple more decent polls to achieve that. Biden should prepare for Castro to come after him alongside Harris and Booker, perhaps on the Obama administration’s record of deportations. If Castro can pull off a winning exchange against the real polling leader, and not just Beto O’Rourke, perhaps the next bump could be a real one.
6. Bernie SandersThe “dose of reality” people are at it again.
If you love lecturing about Bernie Sanders’ hippie fantasies colliding with the “real world,” this was your week! Again! Sanders’ unionized staffers, as the Washington Post reported this week, were meeting resistance from management over salary levels. The campaign struck a deal and the staffers got their demand, but the story nevertheless produced the typical, practically auto-typed punditry about how Sanders’ socialist rhetoric finally ran into “reality,” the reality that workers aren’t allowed to have money. It’s just the way things work. Bernie Sanders Socialism Ha Ha. Bernie Sanders Never Run Business. Now Bernie Run Business. Bernie Sanders Hypocrisy Publish Column.
7. Beto O’RourkeThe problem with the “wait for Texas” strategy.
We will start out the Beto Spot this week, as we do each week, by observing what humiliations befell the West Texan: The humiliation that befell Beto O’Rourke was that Sen. Ted Cruz delivered a clean, unreviewable, completely on-the-level Twitter dunk squarely upon him. That never feels good. What is keeping hope alive within the O’Rourke camp, though, is the Texas primary, where he’s currently running a strong second to Joe Biden in the few polls that have been conducted there. It is, as they say, a “delegate-rich” state, and it comes relatively early in the primary season. It just doesn’t come early enough. If O’Rourke can’t finish first or second in Iowa, it won’t matter that Texas comes a few weeks later, because he’ll be out of the race, whether he chooses to exit or not.