Former Vice President Joe Biden. | David J. Phillip/AP Photo analysis The front-runner marches in place, waiting to see if any of his rivals can displace him. Vice President Joe Biden—who as in previous outings interspersed some strong moments with several mushy or head-scratching ones—seemed emphatically life-sized, once again, in the latest debate in Houston.…
Vice President Joe Biden—who as in previous outings interspersed some strong moments with several mushy or head-scratching ones—seemed emphatically life-sized, once again, in the latest debate in Houston.
There is an optical dimension to presidential politics that is hard to explain in logical terms but hard to deny in practical experience: At some point winning candidates seem to grow larger in public projection and their ability to dominate a stage.
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Someone starts the campaign as an ordinary politician, desperate for a few extra seconds on camera, and somehow becomes a leader who doesn’t have to beg or contrive cute one-liners to get attention, by virtue of being very visibly the most consequential person in the field.
One conclusion of Thursday night’s debate, over three hours: Those mysterious optics have not kicked in yet. It was a big stage of people who still seem smaller than the position they are seeking.
Biden’s previous uneven performances didn’t dislodge him atop the race, and so caution is justified in predicting bleeding wounds from this one. Even so, discursive answers on substantive issues like deportation of undocumented immigrants and Afghanistan, an oddly dated reference to a “record player,” disrespectful digs and patronizing swipes from rivals, all raise the question: Can he withstand four more months of this before actual Democratic voting begins?
And, if not, a question for his rivals: When will those mysterious optics of power kick in for them?
A smaller field—10 candidates on one night instead of 20 over two—meant that there was no one present who didn’t pass at least some modest threshold of plausibility. And most of the candidates had at least some moments when their voices carried. But there was no one who clearly owned the stage and loomed obviously larger than rivals.
There’s time yet, of course. It was around this period four years ago when Donald Trump changed in perception from a loud novelty candidate to someone who clearly was in command of the GOP race and made much more conventionally credentialed opponents look small on the stage.
It was strong performances at a debate and on the trail in October 2007 that helped Barack Obama overcome a somewhat slow start and establish himself as front-runner Hillary Clinton’s equal in stature in the Democratic contest.
It does not seem likely that the Houston debate will live in memory as such a moment of transformation.
For one thing, it was at times pretty hard work for the audience: three hours is a lot, especially watching people who of necessity are being quite nakedly calculating in their effort to stand out. One good thing about the length, however, was a somewhat more dignified tone: candidates did not have to shout and filibuster and interrupt to snare the spotlight as much as they did at the summer’s two previous sets of two-night debates.
Elizabeth Warren showed the traits that helped drive her surge earlier this year have survived intact to the fall. But her performances tend to flicker. Crisp and impassioned answers on expanding access to health care or curbing access to guns would be followed by long stretches when she seemed to blend into the background.