Sound Check

Yesterday, your intrepid correspondent forced himself to watch all ten candidates at the CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall. This does not mean I watched all 40 minutes of each. Not even close. A minimum of 7 to 10 minutes, sometimes a lot more.

With no candidates directly facing off, this wasn’t like a debate. But it was a great way to do a sound check. They all had the same amount of time. They all took a couple moderator questions and some from the audience. No artificial restrictions on how long they could take to answer.

Each participating candidate joined the nomination contest more than a few months ago. There are no excuses for not having a message locked in. The rust should be scraped away. I wasn’t expecting perfection, but did assume basic competence, and figured to see improvement from the less experienced national candidates.

Here are my rankings, based on how excited their campaign team should be about how their horse looked, and what it portends going forward:

#1 Elizabeth Warren

She entered the evening second in national polling. Leading in the PredictIt odds for the nomination. The audience was extremely favorable. She got a good time slot. Had time to watch others go first if she chose. The format allowed for her to explain as much as she wanted.

It’s hard to imagine more favorable ground. Warren still took advantage. Among the Big Three, Biden went first and did an immediate face plant. Sanders was next and did Bernie things. Then Warren acted like a confident front runner.

She’s going to be too far left for some. There’s a lot of work remaining to win the nomination. But she looked like the most plausible contender last night. Energy, conviction, passion, depth. If you leave ideology and poll numbers out, it’s absurdly difficult to watch her and Biden and think this is a contest.

Those other things do matter, so this is hardly over.

#2 Cory Booker

Booker isn’t everybody’s style. He got the 11:20pm Eastern time slot. Have I mentioned he can read as a little goofy? He’s charitably running at 3% nationally.

Still thought he did very well. He’s more decisive than Harris. More passionate than Buttigieg. Deeper than Beto. More interesting than Klobuchar and Castro. More credentialed than Yang.

If you believe, as I do, that we’re likely to see a Final Four by or after Super Tuesday, that consists of Biden, Warren, Sanders and a candidate to be named later, Booker showed the skill set to eventually pick up the majority of voters not committed to the Big Three.

While not having the super lefty brand of Warren or Sanders, Booker is still more progressive sounding than Harris, Buttigieg, Beto, et al. He may be at the center of where 2020 Democratic primary voters are, even if someone like Biden is closer to the center of the country.

I’d still take the field over Booker for that fourth slot. He may do just well enough to divide support so that there isn’t a fourth contender. But for the first time, I saw how he could be a stronger choice than Harris or Mayor Pete, and get the spot without either of them doing anything specifically wrong.

#3 Andrew Yang

Yang is consistently improving with more practice. His agenda is different enough from the others that there’s actually something to listen to. He’s very comfortable getting a little into the weeds on an issue or concept.

I still don’t see a path to the nomination. He could be interesting in New Hampshire though. Yang’s approach is very non-partisan. A third of voters are independent. Unlike Iowa, which clusters behind a few candidates, New Hampshire often spreads support. There’s a way where he reaches double digits and at least indirectly influences who gets nominated.

More importantly for Yang, he’s building a foundation that can lead to becoming more of a national figure over the next several years if that’s a priority for him.

#4 Bernie Sanders

He’s like a super reliable watch. No surprises. Bernie has the advantage of conviction. He really believes what he’s saying. The party can’t move too left for him. His climate plan costs the most. Is the most ambitious. You cannot outbid Sanders.

Bernie is likely cognitively sharper than Biden these days. More importantly, he always knows his lane, so it’s very difficult to trip him up or make him seem overly hesitant.

This was closer to the modulated Sanders from the first debate than the fiery one from the second. He’s better when he’s really on one, but going after Biden, still looked sharp as a tack by comparison.

#5 Pete Buttigieg

Good News: Mayor Pete answered with ease and aplomb. More than most other candidates, he was able to stitch together his various answers to build a coherent whole to his time on stage.

He provided the best balance between a progressive policy agenda and the sort of politically inclusive language that will make Trump-skeptical Republican suburbanites think he’s much safer than a candidate like Warren.

His spring boom was propelled by a CNN town hall appearance. He sounded at least as good in the same format last night.

Bad News: He always sounds like this. And hasn’t moved in any polling direction but down for four months. If you went in to the town hall supporting him, you still do. Don’t think he picked up many new people.

Mayor Pete has the reasonable, analytical approach down. In the Age of Trump, that’s appealing to many. Successful Democrats like JFK, Bill Clinton, and Obama have combined brains and passion. Buttigieg is still missing half of the formula. There’s still a lot of Millennial Dukakis there. And he’s facing a tougher field.

#6 Beto O’Rourke

I’m still not impressed. Still couldn’t bring myself to watch more than several minutes of him. His answers lack a layer or three of depth compared to the candidates ranked above him.

He is improving though. It’s not hard to imagine Beto sounding pretty good by the time January and the sprint to Iowa rolls around. Unlike Harris, he was able to give a clear answer on a controversial topic, saying he was in favor of cap and trade, not in favor of a straight carbon tax.

I’d rather be responsible for his campaign than Castro’s. He’s making strides toward being a reasonable VP choice. And if eleven things fell in place, he’s a contender.

#7 Amy Klobuchar

She’s really solid. Grounded, informed. Klobuchar went between Harris and Biden. That’s a good test of how legit a candidate is. She was more decisive than Harris. Way more coherent than Biden. Definitely presidential enough.

I had a lot of trouble staying fully alert though. If there were fewer candidates, she’d have more of a shot. If the nation was thinking it needed a particularly steady hand, as opposed to steadier than Trump, she’d be more appealing.

Just not going to break through. Even as a Biden alternative, if his supporters suddenly decide to care that he can’t handle basic audience questions.

#8 Kamala Harris

Ugh. She did fine and all. But ugh. The thing that’s going to prevent Harris from winning the nomination is her complete inability to take a stand when she knows half of the primary voters are on each side.

If she had the accumulated goodwill Biden possesses, this wouldn’t be fatal. Kamala doesn’t. She’s a relatively new face. We’ve seen her bounce around on Medicare for All. Bernie and Warren want to ditch private insurance. Biden, Buttigieg, and most of the others with a pulse don’t. Each faction represents about half of the polling support. So she temporizes.

Same problem with nuclear energy. On the one hand, it’s dangerous and nobody knows what to do with the waste. On the other, it’s much harder to reach zero carbon without it. Most of her competitors are taking one side or the other. She wobbled.

In an election where conviction is a big deal, this ain’t gonna fly.

#9 Julian Castro

He didn’t get the best time slot. This was like the act opening for the act, opening for the act, opening for the headliner. The virtual amphitheater was mostly empty. The crowd was talking to each other more than listening to the music.

You’ve gotta really have chops to overcome that. He didn’t. In 90 second blocks during a debate, talking about immigration, Castro has managed to sound passionate and informed. He gets overshadowed, but the overall impression is positive. One might wonder what he could do with a longer set.

Well, at least if climate is the theme, more isn’t better. Castro sounded qualified enough. The gap between #1 and #9 on the list is less than the gap between #9 and the final person. The problem is he gave no compelling reason for his candidacy to exist.

#2,685,311 Joe Biden

The irresistible force/immovable object quandary of 2020 is the gap between Biden’s resilient poll results and his actual performance as a candidate. Pundits get caught up in his gaffes and exaggerations. Those are baked in.

Many got overexcited when he looked bad in the first debate and Kamala roughed him up. Then in the second debate, he was ready, and his younger competitors looked like a pack of over-eager hyenas. So I’ve spent the past couple months thinking Biden is definitely going to last a while, regardless of how much he’s slipped since 2016 or so.

Good lord he was terrible. It was a disqualifying performance. Nobody that unable to form a cogent response should be a serious candidate for President of the United States, his poll numbers against Donald Trump be damned.

Keep in mind, the end of what would be his first term is 64.5 months from now. We’re 31.5 months in to the Trump presidency. He lacks the verbal dexterity to do the job. It’s still possible Biden could win the nomination. This format showed his weaknesses in a way debates won’t.

Particularly if the economy worsens, he could still beat Trump, even if he increasingly resembles someone’s addled great uncle. But he’s not going to be able to communicate a vision that can unite his party, never mind a fractured country.

He was at a disadvantage yesterday. The audience was stacked with Warren voters. AKA the sort of people who would attend a forum like this and get picked to ask questions. There were a few Berners, but Warren has a huge lead among professors and students working on advanced degrees. That’s who got to play.

Biden is frequently more likely to go backward than forward in time while answering. He’s generally defensive about his record. He’s left plenty of bread crumbs for overeducated progressives to find and get indigestion from.

He was never going to be the star of the evening. But it was reasonable to expect he could finish an entire thought without cutting himself off. It was plausible to think he’s use his traditional verbal crutches as filler, not as the main course.

I’m not sure when this is going to bite him. It might be years from now. But this was worse than I’d imagined possible, and the bar was really low. If you were ever wondering if The Rolling Stones could put on a show with broken guitars, a busted amplifier and Mick Jagger having laryngitis, here’s your test. How far can nostalgia carry a carcass?

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