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And the Dead Shall Rise: The June Democratic Power Rankings

June 17, 2019
And the Dead Shall Rise: The June Democratic Power Rankings

Last month Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg held the top three spots. But now, the debates are coming. Shirt’s about to get real.

(1) Joe Biden. We’re about to hit the acid test for Biden Mania: Does he still have his fastball?

My contention from the start has been that if the Joe Biden of 2020 still looks like the Joe Biden of 2012, then he’ll win the nomination. Okay, sorry: I mean, if he still acts like the Joe Biden of 2016.

Biden can afford to be goofy. He can afford to be Crazy Uncle Joe. He can afford to be light on specifics. What he can’t afford is to look like a tired old man. At the debate next week, Joe will need to demonstrate total command of his pitches. He’ll have to look sharp and energetic and totally dialed in.

If he does, then he will consolidate his position as the front-runner for this part of the campaign and begin to work on building what could be a wire-to-wire victory.

He leads in all national polls. He leads in all state polls. He’s even beating Kamala Harris in California and Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts.

Don’t keep believing that Biden has structural weaknesses: Every other candidate in the race would sell her mother to change places with him. His challenge is that he has to prove he’s still got it. And he can’t lose the lead once the race tightens.

Because if there’s anything you can count on, it’s this: All races tighten.

(2) Bernie Sanders. This has not been a great month for the Bern. He’s no longer the default it’s-his-turn candidate, and he’s still recovering from having Biden’s entry cannibalize his numbers. He hasn’t been able to make much of a dent in the Biden machine. And the big surge this month is coming from his closest ideological rival: Elizabeth Warren.

The truth is, Bernie would much rather be in a fatal-fourway with Biden, Mayor Pete, and Kamala Harris. That’s a matchup where he has room to maneuver. He does not want to wind up in a three-way race in Iowa and New Hampshire where it’s basically him, Biden, and Warren.

If you’re looking for bright spots, though, there’s this: Bernie still has a very real base of support in the mid-teens. That’s not nothing.

Also: At the debates, people are likely to try to draw contrasts with Biden. And with only six minutes of talk time per candidate, it’s going to be very hard to coherently contrast yourself with both Biden and Bernie. They’ll have to pick one or the other. And Biden is clearly the bigger target.

(3) Elizabeth Warren. Hold on—we’ve got a live look at the Warren 2020 campaign . . .

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I had truly thought that Warren was finished, but she has a plan and is sticking to it.

The Warren plan has simply been to put out a gazillion policy proposals and then sell them relentlessly. She’s stopped trying to be Regular Folks and embraced her wonkishness. And it’s working.

She’s exploded into the mid- and low-teens in just about every poll. These numbers are real. We’re seeing them in national surveys and in just about every state survey, too.

If you’re looking for reasons to be bullish on Warren, I have a plan for that: She’s very strong in Iowa. And the debates will be a real moment for her to shine because she’s one of the few candidates who can actually contrast with both Biden and Bernie simultaneously: She can say that Biden is the stale status quo while Bernie is a dilettante who hasn’t actually done the work. And compared with Mayor Pete, she’s an actual grownup.

The problem is that Warren will be in the June 26 debate and Biden, Bernie, and Mayor Pete will all be in the June 27 debate.

I can’t figure if the DNC disrespected her with this slotting, or did her a favor. On the one hand, she’s the only serious contender in what is otherwise clearly the JV debate. On the other hand, she gets to attack the two frontrunners with impunity and she’ll clearly be the top dog in her class.

On balance, I’d say that this is ultimately a small plus-up for Warren.

But even so, I remain, overall, somewhat bearish on her overall chances. She is not an electric campaigner and the American public has demonstrated very little interest in spinach-eating over the last several presidential cycles.

(4) Pete Buttigieg. Still plugging along. Still hoping to be the 2020 Jack Kennedy and not the 2020 Gary Hart.

Honestly, I’m ready to declare Mayor Pete the big winner already. I don’t think he’ll be the nominee, but that’s beside the point. He’s parlayed being mayor of South Bend, Indiana, into a serious seat at the table in national politics. He’s made it and is playing with house money from here on in.

And yet …

If you were going to pick one person outside the top three to be a real danger to go all the way, it would have to be Buttigieg (or Beto—more later). That’s because he’s got the best chance to turn the campaign into a generational movement to retire the baby boomers from American public life.

That’s not what the campaign is about, so far. But Mayor Pete will be onstage with Biden and Bernie on June 27 and for all we know, that could be the spark that changes everything. If this becomes a generational choice in the minds of Democratic voters, there will be very little anyone can do to stop it. And there are only two guys in the race with a chance to surf that wave.

(5) Kamala Harris. She’s stuck right where she was last time. And it’s hard to see how she gets unstuck.

The idea of Kamala Harris is so powerful—a 50-year-old African-American woman who used to be a prosecutor!—that the money and machinery that drives campaigns won’t abandon her until it absolutely has no choice. They’ll keep waiting for lift-off. And waiting. And waiting.

And wait they will, until she can articulate a compelling vision for why she’s running for president. She doesn’t need to have a plan for everything. But she ought to at least have a mission statement: Make America great again. Hope. Compassionate conservatism. Bridge to the 21st century.

You can’t simply run for president with “I’m a smart, capable adult who can be trusted to make mostly good decisions about how to run our massive federal government.”

(Seriously: If you could, America wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.)

I don’t count out the possibility that Harris finds her voice and is able to explain to Democrats why she wants to be president. And if she does, she could be formidable.

But if she doesn’t, then no amount of money and machinery will win her the nomination.

(6) Beto O’Rourke. I’m not just a member of the Beto O’Rourke Fan Club—I’m the president!

How in the world do I have Beto this high? Only because no one else even registers. He’s literally the last candidate who’s not behind the margin of error everywhere.

I now think that Beto could be the first major candidate to drop out of the race. He has something else to run for (John Cornyn’s Senate seat). He hasn’t been bloodied yet, and everyone still likes him. He made a strategic decision to go dark in an effort to avoid overexposure and it didn’t work out for him. Once he runs out of his early money, he’s going to be hard-pressed to raise more.

Unless he comes alive at the debates.

Beto is the one other candidate who can turn this into a generational race, and if he lights up the debate stage with the Kavorka, then he could jump back into the mix.

(7 tie) Amy Klobuchar / Cory Booker. Both Mean Amy and Mr. Rosario Dawson are in the same boat: They need to break out at the debate, and they have the ability to do so.

Both are smart and personable. Both are capable of great performances. Both will have a chance to demand real attention for the stories they’re trying to tell. And both will be essentially a blank slate to the national audience and won’t have to worry about anyone gunning for them.

Finally, both must realize that if they can’t start moving the needle, they’ll have to think about getting out at some point in the medium future.

The problem is that they’ll be onstage together on June 26 and there can be only one. The opportunity is that the only top-tier candidate there with them will be Warren.

(9) The Heel Turn. There’s one sure way to get attention at a debate and that’s to light yourself on fire and make an attack so outrageous that it becomes the story of the debate.

Does that get you the nomination? No. But it buys you a short-term burst of oxygen and a small window of time to try to make something of yourself.

Most politicians don’t do heel turns like this because it’s a low-probability, high-risk play. And if you think you have a life in politics after the current election cycle, it’s not worth taking the chance.

But we do have 20 people on stage; 15 of them are desperate to make an impression; 12 of them have literally nothing to lose.

What do you think the odds are that, in this group of 12, someone will try to put Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders through a plate glass window?

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I’d say the odds are at least even.

Everyone else. If you didn’t make the debate stage, your campaign is over. But note that the DNC hasn’t yet set out requirements for the next debate. If next week turns out to be problematic for the candidates that actually have a shot at becoming the nominee, then I’d expect the DNC to dispense with the “look how unbiased we are!” schtick and radically shrink the field for the next debate.

At which point, the people not making the stage will also effectively have their campaigns terminated.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.