The Fox News website highlights “hot topics” at the top of the page. As I write, the topics are: “Kobe Bryant dead,” “Trump impeachment,” and “Coronavirus.” Compelling—and in the last case terrifying—stories. But something is missing: the Democratic primary.
The Iowa caucus will be held in a matter of days. New Hampshire votes a week after that. Twelve Democrats are stillin the race. Nobody cares.
Maybe that’s harsh. No doubt the candidates’ mothers are paying attention. Yet in two decades of serious observation of politics I have not seen a presidential primary that exerts less of a hold on the nation’s attention than this one. Why?
The obvious answer is impeachment. It is all Washington cares about. The trial of President Trump hasn’t just overshadowed the campaign. It’s stopped it. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar, who are in the game in Iowa, as well as Michael Bennet, who is not, have been strapped to their chairs. Think of all the selfies Warren has missed out on. She must be despondent.
Because the television camera in the Senate chamber is pointed at the rostrum, Warren and Sanders can’t even communicate to their supporters through hand gestures. Nor have Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg capitalized on the opportunity of having Iowa to themselves. They can’t break through wall-to-wall coverage of senators’ questions and legal maneuvers, of John Bolton’s book, of Mitch McConnell’s quest to end the trial as soon as possible.
True, impeachment has kept Biden’s name in the news. But not in a way he would like. Trump’s defense has drawn further attention to Hunter Biden’s questionable position on the board of Ukrainian gas giant Burisma. What was Hunter being paid for? Relationship advice? His dad doesn’t have a good answer. Whether he likes it or not, impeachment reinforces the impression that Joe Biden is a lifelong D.C. politician whose family benefits from his connections.
Look at the numbers. Prior to Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of the impeachment inquiry on September 24, Biden was at 44 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable. Last week he was 41 percent favorable, 53 percent unfavorable. That isn’t progress.
President Trump’s job approval rating hasn’t budged. It was 45-52 in the Real Clear Politics average then and now. And Trump has improved in head-to-head matchups. In the late October ABC News / Washington Post poll, Biden held a 15-point advantage over Trump. As of last week’s poll, his lead had been cut to four points.
If Nancy Pelosi thought impeachment would help the Democratic frontrunner, she was mistaken. That’s not strategy. It’s what Will Ferrell, portraying George W. Bush, once called “strategery.” (Of course, Pelosi’s objective may have been simply to insulate herself from a left-wing rebellion.)
Biden’s troubles suggest another reason for the lack of excitement. The candidates are weak and uninteresting. Biden is barely comprehensible. Buttigieg has all the pizzazz of a PowerPoint. Warren reminds you of your least favorite professor.
Sanders and his surrogate-successor Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez draw crowds. But so did the Jacobins. The democratic socialists are exciting, sure. They are also terrifying.
How can you tell the rest of the Democratic field is uninspired? Two billionaires have bought support through supremacy of the airwaves. It’s not Mike Bloomberg’s personality that has contributed to his rise. It’s his checkbook.
Worse than the dullness of the contestants is the plodding horserace. Biden has floated above his rivals since the beginning. The one major change in the dynamic has been Warren’s rise and fall. The two exciting moments came when Kamala Harris ambushed Biden in the first debate and Tulsi Gabbard sideswiped Harris in the second. Months passed without any incident. The most recent controversy is whether Sanders told Warren a woman can’t be president. Surely they can do better than that.
Sanders victories in Iowa and New Hampshire would liven things up. For a while. The fundamental problem is the Democratic primary is a sideshow.
For four-and-a-half years the main event in American politics has been Donald Trump. Policy isn’t the issue. He is the issue. Everything revolves around him. “Our political solar system, in short, has been characterized not by two equally competing suns,” wrote the political scientist Samuel Lubell, “but by a sun and a moon. It is within the majority party that the issues of any particular period are fought out; while the minority party shines in reflected radiance of the heat thus generated.”
The party system Lubell described no longer exists. The parties are shells. The incumbent has changed parties five times. He settled on the GOP four years before winning the presidency. Bernie Sanders is running for the nomination of a party he has never joined and doesn’t trust.
What matters today are individual brands. And no brand is more prominent, more polarizing, more overpowering than Donald J. Trump’s.