Slate’s guide to the presidential candidates everyone’s talking about this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, in which I, Ben Mathis-Lilley, have stepped in for Jim Newell to rank the 2020 presidential candidates according to a proprietary blend of news buzz, pundit consensus, racist tweets about Baltimore, polling aggregation, and spices derived from illegally homebred “insanity peppers.”
This week’s primary news was that the Democratic candidates gathered in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday to debate each other in a format and setting that CNN had apparently designed as a tribute to American Gladiators. Read on to find out how everyone did in the joust!
1. John DelaneyCometh the hour, cometh the man.
On Tuesday night, CNN’s debate moderators came ready to scrutinize Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s plans for ambitious public spending programs. Anchor Jake Tapper was specifically interested in setting off a discussion between Warren, Sanders, and the more avowedly moderate candidates over whether the progressives’ initiatives would alienate fiscally cautious swing voters. However, almost all of the more-centrist candidates with even outside chances at winning the primary had been placed in Wednesday’s debate, and the one who was present on Tuesday—Pete Buttigieg—likes to present a personality that’s gentle and reasonable, not confrontational. Therefore, the job of being Bernie and Warren’s foil fell to Delaney, the nondescript ex-congressman and businessman from Maryland who has been legit campaigning for president for two solid years now without breaking 1 percent in the polls. Delaney took the job eagerly, jumping into the unexpected spotlight for back-and-forths with Sanders and Warren during which he called single-payer coverage an “extreme” idea built on “fairy-tale economics” that would trigger hospital closings and alienate “half the country.” He later took a shot at the Green New Deal and, as his reward for all of it, earned himself the ire of every online leftist in America and got victimized by Warren in one of the cleaner political takedowns you’ll ever see outside of a Sorkin script. But he also got the top spot on the Surge because now everyone knows who he is!
2. Bernie SandersStill not going anywhere.
The Bern Man gets “short shrift” from pundits and substitute newsletter writers (by the way—doesn’t it seem like Jim is on vacation a lot? Has anyone in HR checked whether he’s actually eligible for all this time off?) because his level of support is fairly static, and the questions about how his type of leftism plays in modern America are now being litigated by new, exciting “democratic socialists” like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But as he reminded everyone on Tuesday, by responding to single-payer haters with such memorable brio that one of them complained he was shouting too much, Sanders is still a forceful and, in his way, charismatic figure who is not going to be thrown off his game (or, more importantly, chased out of the race) by a few center-left talking points about preserving private insurance. (The same could also be said for the way Warren handled attacks, but I’m already doing a tie in the next item and Warren will get plenty of other chances to be on this list.)
3. Joe Biden (tie)Not great on the details.
The concept of ideological primary “lanes” is undercut by the reality that many actual Democratic voters are enthusiastic about candidates who hold widely varying policy positions that don’t necessarily add up to “left” or “center.” But at the same time, it’s often evident that candidates themselves orient their campaign messages and tones to target a certain type of imagined voter. In this cycle, Biden and Harris—though they obviously have their differences—are both currently aiming for what you might call Team Democrat types: individuals who prioritize a fighting spirit and a willingness to confront Trump over any particular policy commitments. On Wednesday in Detroit, though, both Biden and Harris were pressed to talk about … their policy commitments, specifically health care, and it did not go that well, with both giving responses that were garbled in their larger messages and their specifics. Biden said, for example, that his plan would involve $1,000 copays. Which would be a real bummer of a copay! (He meant deductible, which was probably clear from context, but it was also clear from context that he’s not super familiar with his own plan.)
3. Kamala Harris (tie)Same.
The day after the debate, Harris was in the position of telling reporters that “a debate where you get to talk for 60 seconds” is “not the best venue” for her to discuss health care. The only bad news for Harris about this is that her sole opportunities going forward to speak to mass audiences of Democratic voters, who consistently say health care is the most important issue for them, are going to be the debates. It would seem that both she and Biden will have to sharpen their pitches at least a bit if they’re going to avoid getting Rubio’d when the field narrows and they’re getting directly contrasted onstage with more detail-minded candidates like Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg.
5. Marianne WilliamsonSorry.
Williamson, the New Age author, earned herself a lot of Google searches and social media chatter on the strength of articulate debate comments about reparations and the “dark psychic force” that Donald Trump has unleashed on the country. And, God willing, her Surge™ will Recede™ when everyone sees the day-after stories noting her history of bizarre statements about “vaccinations, disability, mental health, fatness, HIV/AIDS, and science in general.”
6. Cory BookerThe benefits of being the underdog.
As a public figure, Booker has always been a psychotically extroverted personality who never met a canned one-liner or publicity stunt he didn’t like, which has had the effect of making him a well-known senator at a relatively young age but has also had the effect of making him a guy who gets on people’s nerves. A presidential campaign was always the seemingly inevitable endpoint of Booker’s performative rise through the ranks, but reality threw him a curveball when a bunch of even-better-known Democrats also ran for president, making him not just an underdog—a position he’s been in before—but borderline irrelevant. It seems to have loosened him up, though, and on Wednesday he gave his second straight sharp debate performance, taking loose but effective shots at Biden and Trump. In the words of my Slate colleagues, Booker “doesn't seem like such a try-hard anymore,” “kept calling bullshit on bullshit,” and “might actually rescue your dog now but not tweet about it.” Inspiring!
7. Donald TrumpSocialism!!!!!!1!!!!!
For the most part, Trump spent this week once again using Twitter in an attempt to eliminate any lingering pretense that voting for him is not an outright vote for public racism, this time by repeatedly disparaging Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings and the (mostly black) residents of his congressional district. While his advisers keep insisting that the racist tweeting is in fact a carefully crafted strategic message to his “base,” the actual demographics of the United States in 2020 suggest that the more useful development for his reelection chances this week was how excited CNN and a number of Democratic candidates were to entertain the idea that “Medicare for All”—which three of the leading four Dem candidates have endorsed in some fashion—is a looming socialist catastrophe. There is, of course, ample time for M4A Dems to figure out how to sell their health care ideas to skeptics, but for now the polling suggests that Democrats spending time discussing the words eliminating private insurance on national TV is good news for the Republican Party.