Skip to main content
opinion

The Democrats, as they have demonstrated over two nights of cantankerous debates in Detroit, have a problem. They have many good presidential candidates. But they have no shining star – not yet, anyway – no one to capture the public imagination.

If they settle for past-his-prime Joe Biden, it will be reluctantly: Sorry, we couldn’t find anyone better. If they go with their other museum piece, warhorse Bernie Sanders, it will be the same.

Kamala Harris is a commanding presence but she was beaten up in the Motor City matchup. Elizabeth Warren got many flattering reviews for her performance, but her relentlessly hectoring manner is off-putting. She has only one gear.

The young mayor Pete Buttigieg has a stellar mind, but as someone watching the debates with me in Hazleton, Pa., put it, he looks like a shoe salesman.

There’s another problem: Anyone who emerges as a hotshot in the sprawling 20-person field won’t enjoy the stature for long – not the way the others will drag him or her down.

In the well-moderated Tuesday and Wednesday debates, the candidates bloodied up one another far more than they did Donald Trump. Party leadership battles traditionally are bruising affairs, but the attacks in this one are particularly brutal – and there’s still almost a year to go until the nominee is chosen.

If there was a big winner in the debates, it was likely Mr. Trump. When the Democrats did get around to focusing on him as opposed to their own deficiencies, the blows were predictable and tiresome. No one has anything new or compelling to say about him. He’s worn out all derogatory adjectives.

Pleasing for him is that the debates did more to aggravate than resolve the split among Democrats between moderates and progressives. On the paramount issues of the day, such as health care and immigration, the candidates presented a fractious front.

Instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, the debates levelled the playing field. Lower-tier candidates shone, particularly on the second night.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was the standout. He was dynamic. He had gravitas but was refreshingly good-natured as well, a difficult combination to pull off.

Mr. Biden had a better night than he did on the debate floor in Miami a month ago but was still uneven, getting in some good lines but stumbling at times and garbling his facts.

In Miami, Ms. Harris shredded him. This time, Mr. Booker took him down. When the former vice-president – who is trying to ride Barack Obama’s coattails – declined to say what he advised Mr. Obama on immigration policy, Mr. Booker pounced. “Mr. vice-president, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke president Obama more than anybody in this campaign. You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”

On criminal justice Mr. Booker pounded Mr. Biden – who has a wide lead among African-American voters – for having sponsored legislation in the past that led to the mass incarceration of black Americans.

In the Booker show, however, there were contradictions. He repeatedly made the point that the Democrats should stop criticizing one another, only to proceed to do that himself.

While he confronted Mr. Biden, Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, went hard at Ms. Harris, who was on the defensive for most of the night. Ms. Gabbard targeted her work on the death penalty while she was California’s attorney-general, accusing her of keeping innocent people on death row: “The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor, you owe them an apology.”

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who made a poor showing in Miami, was among several candidates – John Delaney, Michael Bennet, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang among them – who captured a lot of attention in this go-round. She said her first duty as president would be to “Clorox the Oval Office.”

In Tuesday’s debate, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders held the spotlight. Mr. Sanders was strong if overly loud throughout the evening. He comes across as more confident and in command than Mr. Biden.

No one takes on corporate America like the super smart Ms. Warren. Given her growing stature, the party’s left flank appears to have the most momentum.

That is another reason why Mr. Trump is smiling. Most experts think the Democrats have a better chance of defeating the Republicans if they anoint a moderate candidate. That is looking less likely.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe