Joe Biden won by focusing on what matters

Matthew Walther

The most successful moment of Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate came at 8 p.m. when it began in the first place. The labor dispute at the University of Loyola Marymount that nearly led to a boycott of the proceedings came to an end earlier in the week, and business continued more or less as expected.

By that I mean that Joe Biden, the candidate discounted by countless prognosticators (including yours truly) because of his handsy record, his outmoded attitudes towards race, his embarrassing series of gaffes, and well-nigh indisputable evidence of advanced mental decline, was supposed to be outside the bounds of respectability. Biden seemed temporarily to forget that he is not running to be the next British prime minister. But he also gave the impression that he understood the actual stakes of next year's presidential contest: beating Donald Trump. Over and over again, while Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar were arguing about "wine caves" or college tuition, Biden reminded the audience that he understood the actual stakes of next year's contest. He did not give the impression that he thought beating Trump would be an easy or straightforward affair, but he did seem to take it seriously. He made his opponents sound like tedious idealists whose priorities are irrelevant in 2020, when anything proposed by most of them will be dismissed by Trump as "socialism" regardless.

Does this mean that Biden is inevitable or somehow uniquely qualified? I have no idea what the meaningful differences are between Tom Steyer, who seemed to disappear for roughly 90 percent of the evening, and Biden. If you think that the former vice president is a senile septuagenarian whose ideas are good, should you instead support the guy who paid the budget of one of the recent Star Wars movies to stand on a stage and make a more boring version of Biden's case for bland centrism? No. If the most important thing is ensuring that Trump is not re-elected, Biden's stolid indiffferentism is the best thing to recommend him to anyone who cares more about winning in 2020 than about the specifics of an agenda that would have to make it past Mitch McConnell's Republican-controlled Senate no matter what happens.

Lingering in the background Thursday night was the Democratic National Committee's decision to tighten the requirements for candidates participating in the debates. This meant, among other things, that Andrew Yang (who was ignored by the moderators for most of the evening) was the only non-white candidate on the stage. It is difficult to assess the relevant importance of hearing from a diverse field to the average Democratic voter. If Thursday showed us anything, it is that there are certain very real ideological conflicts over single-payer health care, the role of the armed forces in the world, and taxation that matter more to the party's base than abstract concerns about race and sex. And electability in the sense of beating Trump matters even more than any of these things.

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