Slate’s guide to the presidential candidates everyone’s talking about this week.
Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, your newsletter ranking 2020 presidential candidates based on what they want to do for poor kids, because—friends, the fact of the matter is—getting the kids into schools, you have to make sure kids hear words on the TV set and you have to play the record player, as words are the key—literally, the key, not a joke—to the whole kit ’n’ caboodle, and folks, here’s the thing about dirty Nic Maduro, we’ve put a lot of money into fighting the people and—we’re at time?
In this special debate-delayed newsletter drop, we look at what went down in Houston over the course of what felt like 1 million hours: Julián Castro observed that Joe Biden is old and forgetful, to which there may be some truth, but is it fair for him to bring that up over a job so inconsequential as president of the United States, and was Biden actually forgetful at the precise moment Castro noted? Beto O’Rourke wants to take your guns and he doesn’t care who knows it. On the Republican side, Donald Trump either fired a walrus or that walrus had already quit, and a new Republican signed up to lose the nomination to him. But first: Will people ever start caring about Cory Booker? Plausibly.
1. Cory BookerHow the “Cory Booker moment” could happen.
Soooooooo let’s say you’re a mainstream Democrat who’s been loosely supportive of Biden because you remember Barack Obama fondly and want to nominate someone normal to beat Trump. Maybe you watch the latter half of the Democratic debate, in which Biden’s never-great ability to string together coherent sentences devolves into this, and you start to panic about his durability in a lengthy campaign against Trump and, potentially, four to eight years as president. But you’re not sure you want to flip to either of the other current front-runners, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, for fear that they’re too far left and risk tossing a very winnable election to Trump. Maybe, in this case, you look to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, a talented candidate who’s difficult to hate and who keeps having great debates? This might be Booker’s most feasible path from the cellar of 2 to 3 percent in the polls to relevance, Booker is trying to nudge people in that direction, and Thursday’s debate could not have hurt.
2. Joe BidenHow the “Joe Biden moment” will continue.
There are two reasons that Biden’s, uh, very loose second half of the debate might not matter. The first is that nothing Biden says or does has lost him support, because his many supporters like him and want to vote for him. The second is that Biden’s particular debate problem—losing energy and focus as time goes on—aligns neatly with the way debates are digested. The first hour is all that matters because normal human beings—if they watch any of these things at all—don’t sit through an entire THREE HOURS of a Democratic debate. They change the channel to football, CSI, or literally anything other than a political debate after about an hour. Another thing happens after an hour: Political hacks start writing their takes and only listen to the rest of the debate with one ear while typing furiously. Biden could have gone on, say, a confounding rant about schools, record players, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in the second half of the debate, and it barely would have made a dent in post-game analysis about how Biden had his Strongest Debate Yet.
3. Beto O’RourkeA sea change in gun politics.
It’s a big deal that even one Democratic candidate is not just supporting a mandatory federal buyback of assault weapons but emphasizing it. O’Rourke, whose candidacy has been reinvigorated with purpose following his aggressive response to the El Paso shooting this summer, received the biggest ovation of the debate when he said, forthrightly, “Hell yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.” For years, Democrats resisted Republican talking points about how they were “gun-grabbers” looking to confiscate your weapons. That a mainstream Democrat is now embracing that position—perhaps a wee bit out of desperation to revive a flailing campaign—is reflective of two trends in the Democratic coalition: its replacement of rural voters with well-to-do suburban voters, and gun control having been a key voting issue in the 2018 midterms among Democrats. That’s not to say that Democratic strategists wouldn’t still be scared shitless of the backlash to this clip were O’Rourke somehow to claw his way back to become the nominee.
4. Julián CastroIt’s not about whether it was “fair.”
After the debate, Castro refused to admit that there was anything else going on beyond a simple dispute over health care policy when he said to Biden, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” But of course he was throwing doubts about Biden’s brain into the field of play. The attack prompted plenty of tsk-tsking from Castro’s fellow competitors and pundits afterward, suggesting the attack was an unfair low blow. The Surge thinks it was a perfectly fair thing for Castro to say—it just may not have been a very smart thing. Biden is very popular among Democrats, and repeatedly insinuating senility in the middle of a debate isn’t a great way for the relatively unknown Castro to endear himself with the primary electorate. Everyone knows that the honorable, dignified way for a candidate to raise concerns about the frontrunner’s brain is to have staff shit-talk with reporters behind the front-runner’s back.
5. Donald TrumpTFW your national security adviser is either fired or resigns because he is either too hawkish or too dovish.
What’s the prospect for war ahead of the election? This is the United States, so “above average” is always a fair bet. It seemed this week, though, that the outlook for new wars with North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, or Denmark went down significantly with ultra-hawk John Bolton’s exit as Trump’s national security adviser. Whether Trump fired him or he resigned is a matter of dispute; either way, they had strategic geopolitical differences. For example, Trump wanted to invite the Taliban to Camp David, but not for the purpose of allowing Bolton to then bomb Camp David. Trump, meanwhile, tweeted on Thursday that the reason Bolton was fired/resigned was because he was too weak for Trump’s tastes. The notion that Bolton might be too dovish for anyone this side of Genghis Khan is of course preposterous, but that won’t stop Trump from suggesting it.
6. Tom SteyerUnlucky No. 11.
The billionaire donor and activist’s efforts to purchase a spot on the debate stage has finally succeeded, with a recent poll putting him at 2 percent support in Nevada having helped secure a spot for the mid-October debate. Oh, did we say “debate?" Because, thanks to you, Tom, there will now be at least 11 candidates qualified for the next round in Ohio, which might prompt the Democratic National Committee to split the debate into two nights. Is it a bit silly that the DNC has devised a system designed to cull the herd, but not effectively enough to permanently do so? Yes! Yes it is. Congrats to Tom, though, who can pay for two (2) nights of the Surge’s carryout next month.
7. Mark SanfordA useful faceplant.
Ex-Surge chart-topper Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor and congressman, announced on Fox News this past weekend that he would run for president, joining Slappy from Illinois and Spanky from Massachusetts in challenging Trump for the Republican nomination. How much of a long shot is this effort? There is a path for Sanford: If he can win his early home-state South Carolina primary, the—ha, never mind, the South Carolina GOP canceled its presidential primary last week, and Sanford would have had no chance of winning it anyway. Sanford, like Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, will not beat Trump anywhere. But we’re glad he’s running. Sanford had one of the most fiscally conservative records in Congress and is focusing his campaign on reducing the country’s debt and deficits. His complete and utter failure to gain any traction can serve as a referendum, to the extent one is needed, on the importance Republicans place on debts and deficits.