The last week of June was a point of no return for Mets fans who began the baseball season with high hopes, even if they didn’t drink the Kool-Aid new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen had been peddling after proclaiming them “the team to beat.”
Their bullpen was in full meltdown, with closer Edwin Diaz having morphed from a stopper last year with Seattle into a man blowing late-inning leads with alarming regularity. More often, however, less-celebrated members of the pen were frittering away leads before Mr. Diaz could be summoned, and this was the week in which Seth Lugo was finding new ways to torment the team’s faithful fans.
On a Sunday night nationally televised ESPN game, he blew a lead for Jacob de Grom against the Cubs by surrendering a three-run homer. Three nights later, a seventh-inning strikeout seemed to have allowed him to escape more trouble against the Phillies, but the ball got away from the catcher to keep the inning alive long enough for the next batter to drive in two runs with a single, a game the Mets finally lost in the 10th inning. And that Saturday night, Mr. Lugo extricated himself from another seventh-inning jam with a strikeout, only to have manager Mickey Callaway leave him in to pitch the 8th inning.
And There It Goes
“Bad move,” I called to my wife from our kitchen, seconds before Nick Markakis hit a game-tying home run, with the next Braves batter sending the first pitch into orbit and making the Mets a perfect 0-for-7 for the week. The players seemed to have taken their GM’s pre-season “team to beat” proclamation a bit too literally.
That wasn’t what bothered me at the moment, having already reconciled myself to another disappointing Mets season early in the month after my first trip of the year to Citifield had been spoiled by another seventh-inning lead blown by—who else—Mr. Lugo, and a six-run 10th inning by the Giants that had me halfway home by the time the Mets made their final out. My uneasiness stemmed from two events that occurred on the days in between the wild-pitch strikeout and the back-to-back homers: the Democratic presidential debates.
There are those who would argue that the Mets and the Dems are not remotely comparable, given that the party is on just a one-election losing streak and last won the White House in 2012, 26 years after the Mets won their last World Series. But that 2016 election had the kind of bizarre wind-up that was not only reminiscent of the Lugo/Diaz debacles but brought to mind the Mets’ excruciating late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008.
A case could be made that unlike Mets management, which seems incapable of sustaining success for more than a couple of seasons but has unquestionable stamina when it comes to long-running failure, national Democrats have proven capable of regrouping, although part of that has to do with their Republican counterparts’ tendency to fritter away short-term advantages to reward the party’s wealthiest donors.
But the Dems having quickly made clear that a rumored comeback attempt by Hillary Clinton would not be welcomed had been a sign that someone in authority had learned a lesson. So was the consensus that emerged within the ranks that there would not be a repeat of the blunder that left Ms. Clinton gliding toward a coronation four years ago—despite her clumsiness as a candidate two elections earlier. Dems being Dems, it wasn’t that shocking that there were nearly enough candidates—23—to stock a Major League roster, and force the party to set rules that limited the debate field to 20, spread over two nights.
There were some positives to be found in the two rounds of Miami Mayhem: four of the five leading candidates in the early polls acquitted themselves well, and in the process the fifth, Joe Biden, discovered that unlike Ms. Clinton, he wasn’t going to be handed the party’s nomination as a kind of Lifetime Achievement Award. Donald Trump has that effect on those who oppose him: Democrats were going to make whoever got the party’s nomination earn it, because they couldn’t afford to go after Mr. Trump next year with less than their best shot.
The other side of that coin, unfortunately, is that Mr. Trump’s reactionary style of governing has pushed Democrats nationally further to the left, a drift that owes more to fury with the incumbent than careful calculation. The mood among many of those on the debate stage June 26 and 27 suggested that they believed the key to winning the party’s nod was to fire up the base, rather than think further down the road about convincing voters in states that provided Mr. Trump’s unexpected path to victory—Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—that they were offering a safer, sounder alternative.
May Not Play Outside NYC
And so on both nights of the debate, all hands were raised when the candidates were asked whether they supported giving health benefits to undocumented workers who made it into the U.S. Aside from the strong emotions running through the Democratic base as coverage of the extreme conditions faced by migrants in detention camps near the Texas border had surfaced shortly before the debates, there was precedent for that kind of generosity: as veteran political consultant Maureen Connelly noted in a July 2 interview, the city hospital system for decades had provided “medical care to the undocumented and people who are poor and don’t have any coverage.”
Then again, New York City is not like many parts of this nation when it comes to such issues, and is not one of the places where next year’s election will be won or lost.
It does, however, have something in common with much of the rest of the country: a large contingent of residents who benefit from private health insurance and would have misgivings about surrendering that coverage in favor of a new program run by the Federal Government. And so eyebrows arched when Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were among those who raised their hands in response to a question about who favored Medicare for All replacing private coverage, along with its prime proponent in the contest, Bernie Sanders, and Mayor de Blasio.
Before the week was over, Ms. Harris would tiptoe back across the border on that one, telling interviewers she thought the question was about whether she personally would forsake the Cadillac plan she and her fellow Senators were covered by, and that of course she would not ask ordinary people to give up their private coverage.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, a conservative with anti-Trump feelings, noted that 70 percent of Americans with private health coverage are satisfied with their plans, and only 13 percent of Americans would prefer a single-payer system with no private alternatives, musing that Democrats bucking that kind of math put a smile on the President’s kisser.
Tough Sell Among Unions
“Fifty million people receive their health care through private insurance,” noted Ms. Connelly, whose partner is Dr. Barry Liebowitz, a former longtime president of the Doctors Council, which during his tenure often sought more in upgraded medical benefits than it did through pay raises. “Union people like their coverage.”
It was understandable, she said, why much of the overcrowded Democratic field had gravitated in the direction of Mr. Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, on matters ranging from Medicare for All to free public colleges to forgiveness of outstanding student debt.
“You sit there and everybody says, ‘Can you top this?’ and they all raise their hand,” she said. “And the cost keeps piling up. It’s all aspirational, but expensive and not obtainable. Where is the money coming from?”
Ms. Warren, who is as savvy economically as anyone in the field, has laid out detailed plans for higher taxes on those worth at least $50 million, with an added surcharge on billionaires. As a counter to the tax cut signed into law by Mr. Trump to cap off his first year in office that overwhelmingly benefited the wealthiest Americans and corporations, it makes sense. Any chance that it has of becoming reality, however, hinges on Democrats not only winning the White House but taking control of the U.S. Senate while holding onto their majority in the House of Representatives.
Since the party’s standard-bearer won’t exactly be sneaking up on the electorate, it can expect that national Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be fighting like it’s their own money at stake. And while, as Times columnist Paul Krugman noted, the Kentucky Senator’s home state receives $40 billion more in Federal aid than it pays in taxes, don’t expect that type of negative propaganda to find its way to Fox News viewers.
Ms. Connelly noted that even splitting the field into groups of 10 per night hadn’t been enough to prevent candidates from interrupting each other and shouting over each other, making it difficult for NBC’s five moderators to keep things orderly. “I think it was embarrassing—the whole format,” she said. “I think Republicans are laughing. The progressives have taken over the [Democratic] Party—at least at this point. Hopefully, things will shake out and people will get more realistic.”
Bernie, Biden Slipping
Mr. Sanders over two presidential campaigns has made clear that he’s found his niche and isn’t moving, and there’s no reason to believe he would moderate his positions even after polls released by both CNN and Quinnipiac July 2 showed him slipping to fourth behind Mr. Biden—whose big lead has shrunk considerably—Ms. Harris and Ms. Warren. He has always been stronger on slogans than on in-depth plans for making his ideas happen, a weakness that was exposed during the 2016 New York presidential primary, first under tough questioning by the Daily News editorial board, and later by Ms. Clinton in a televised debate.
During the June 27 debate that matched him up against Mr. Biden, Ms. Harris, and the candidate running fifth in the polls, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (Ms. Warren stood out on the first panel a night earlier), Mr. Sanders framed the issue as “who has the guts to take on Wall Street, the fossil-fuel industry” and the drug companies he claimed are responsible for the price of medicine being so much higher than in countries like Canada that feature single-payer insurance programs.
“The function of the health-care system today is to make billions of dollars in profits for the insurance companies,” he declared at his usual high volume. “We will have Medicare for All where tens of millions of people are prepared to stand up and tell the insurance companies and the drug companies that their day is gone; that health care is a human right.” Assuming, of course, that he can persuade those tens of millions satisfied with their current coverage to show their faith in him.
Ms. Warren is far more detail-oriented; having “a plan for that” has become an unofficial slogan for everything from paid child-care to worker representation on corporate boards. While Ms. Connelly described her as “thoughtful,” she wondered at the political practicality of some of her key ideas unless there’s a Democratic sweep of both houses of Congress.
Mr. Biden, as might be expected from a front-runner, didn’t look to jump into the fray when not called upon, in contrast to New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker and Mr. de Blasio a night earlier in bids to pull themselves out of the low single digits in the polls. But he had done a bit too much talking eight days earlier at a fund-raiser in New York.
The Fund-Raiser Trap
There ought to be a rule in presidential politics barring candidates from saying anything controversial at the kind of fund-raisers where they seem compelled to offer red meat to their big donors. Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign said at a San Francisco fund-raiser that white working-class voters in Pennsylvania “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”
Four years later, Mitt Romney told a gathering of his donors that 47 percent of the country would vote for Mr. Obama over him because the President gave them “free stuff.” In 2016, Ms. Clinton picked a fund-raiser of her own to claim that half of Mr. Trump’s voters were “deplorables.” And the President, after selling his December 2017 tax cut as aimed at the middle-class, walked into his Florida fund-raising base of Mar-a-Lago—where members pay a $200,000 initiation fee—and told his guests, “You all just got a lot richer.”
But a presidential candidate can’t go trawling for big bucks with tape over his mouth, and so Mr. Biden could be heard clearly at the June 18 shindig where he spoke of a political alliance during his early days as a Senator from Delaware with James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, two of the more-prominent segregationists in the Senate. He said of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ and called Mr. Talmadge “one of the meanest guys” he knew but added, “At least there was some civility. We got things done.”
He intended to contrast those dealings with the current gridlock in the Senate, which Mr. McConnell cast in cement three years ago when he refused to permit hearings on President Obama’s nominee to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, Merrick Garland.
But the backlash was immediate, most notably from Senator Booker, who in a statement said, “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity. Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more-inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”
Throwing Biden Under Bus
He called for an apology, which wasn’t forthcoming. But when the questioning turned to race relations on the second debate night, Ms. Harris force-fed Mr. Biden his lunch.
“I do not believe you are a racist, and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” she said after interrupting one of the fringe candidates, author Marianne Williamson, who had just said that “the average American is woefully undereducated about the issue of race in the United States.”
“But,” Senator Harris told Mr. Obama’s Vice President, “It was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States Senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country…You also worked with them to oppose busing.”
Growing more animated, she continued, “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Mr. Biden, who had been staring straight ahead, turned to face her when he delivered that line, and responded, “You mischaracterized my position across the board. I did not praise racists.” Taking a shot at her chosen profession, he said that early in his career, “I wasn’t a prosecutor, I was a public defender.”
He pointed out that busing in Berkeley, Ca. , where she grew up, was ordered by the City Council, adding, “What I opposed was busing ordered by the [U.S.] Department of Education.”
Senator Harris responded as if Seth Lugo had served up another hanging slider, taking Mr. Biden downtown by emphasizing that the Federal Government often had to get involved in busing because “there was a failure of states to integrate schools in America…there are moments in history when states fail to preserve the civil rights of all people.”
A More-Precarious Lead
The former Vice President replied that he was “the guy who extended the Voting Rights Act for 25 years,” but it was clear she had knocked him off his pedestal and boosted her own standing. Confirmation came five days later with polls showing Mr. Biden dropping at least eight points, while Ms. Harris vaulted past both Mr. Sanders and Mr. Warren, coming within two points of the front-runner in the Quinnipiac Poll and moving five points behind him in the CNN survey.
“She did well and he did not,” Ms. Connelly said shortly after the polls were released. “Kamala Harris had a zinger ready and she delivered it.
“But,” she added, “should she have been rushing out with the T-shirts?”
She was referring to the shirts with a young Kamala in pigtails above the slogan “I was the girl” that were quickly marketed at $29.99 a pop. This, said Ms. Connelly—who besides helping to elect Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg as Mayors worked on John Anderson’s independent campaign for President in 1980—made it obvious that Ms. Harris planned to go after Mr. Biden at the debate from the time they were assigned to the same panel, and had her marketing campaign cranked up and ready to go before she confronted him.
But if she had been guilty of playing politics, shouldn’t Mr. Biden—a man making his third run for President who also went through two grueling general-election runs alongside Mr. Obama—have been more careful about the anecdote that provided her with such powerful ammunition, and better-prepared to hold up under her fire? He is beloved among many white working-class voters with whom he connects particularly well, and popular among numerous black voters because of his faithful service with Mr. Obama, but that doesn’t give him an automatic claim on the Democratic nomination.
Limits on Sentimentality
And having taken the first big punch that cost him significantly in the polls, Mr. Biden faces the challenge of showing he can be a stronger candidate than he was in his abbreviated runs in both 1988 and 2008. Having seen Ms. Clinton wilt in the closing days of the 2016 campaign—never going to Michigan despite having been upset by Mr. Sanders in the primary there despite a poll on the morning of that vote showing her with a 13-point lead, and never campaigning in Wisconsin despite it long having been a part of the “blue wall” Democrats counted on—the party doesn’t have the luxury of being sentimental about an old warrior.
The CNN and Quinnipiac polls both showed Mr. Biden continued to enjoy large leads over his Democratic opponents when voters were asked which of them had the best chance of defeating Mr. Trump. But that perception could also be altered unless he picks up his game—after avoiding media interviews out of concern he might put his foot in it—in future debates as the field begins to thin out.
“It’s very early in the game,” Ms. Connelly said, meaning Mr. Biden had plenty of time to recover, but that there was also the possibility of further significant shifts in voter opinions. “It’s a long campaign.
“And, she concluded, “Lord knows what Trump will say or do.”
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