The legion of Democrats who think they can take the measure of Donald Trump will go at it beginning Wednesday night, each trying to figure out a way to stand out in a crowd of mediocrities.
They’re in the position of Elizabeth Taylor’s sixth or seventh or maybe eighth husband, who cried out in frustration: “I know what’s expected of me on the wedding night, but how can I make it new and interesting for her?”
The candidates are practicing to come up with the meanest, harshest and most colorful way to say how much more they hate the Donald than anyone else in the whole world, and certainly more than any of the others on the platform in Miami.
The most popular grenades lobbed at the president at the beginning of the week of H-Hour (D-Day comes later) was his failure to bomb Tehran last week after sending his bombers aloft. The Democrats had their rhetoric excoriating the president for bombing Iran. That reserve of rhetoric had to be put back on the shelf. Then the president called his bombers back. Nearly everyone mocks him for depriving the world of a great fireworks display, and it isn’t even the Fourth of July.
Bernie Sanders is still trying to regain traction after his great “the hour for socialism is now” speech. He was smacked down by Joe Biden who didn’t even break a sweat, and says Mr. Trump’s reluctance to start the war reminds him of “somebody setting afire a wastebasket full of paper and then putting it out.” Better, he supposes, to let it burn. The curtains might be next and then the furniture.
Kamala Harris, who continues a slow fade from the picture, says she “doesn’t believe that anyone should receive credit for [solving a] crisis of their own making.” She never even got her 15 minutes. Cory Booker, a man of many opinions, all conflicting, worries about what the president’s stand-down tells America’s allies, who are always eager to help when a crisis comes along.
The president’s handling of Iran reminds him that “even when there are strikes on tankers, we see again our allies are very skeptical to even believe us right now. This has been folly. There is no strategy. We have a president that seems to be doing this like a reality TV show and trying to make foreign policy by tweet.”
Mr. Booker was too kind to say so, but perhaps the president’s change of mind reminded him of Barack Obama’s famous red line in the sand in Syria (sand being an odd place to draw lines in any color), warning that if Bashar Assad gassed his people one more time he would make Mr. Assad sorry. In the event, Mr. Assad did, and Mr. Obama said something like “sorry, just kidding, can’t anybody take a joke?”
Taking the president to task for issuing such a threat only to rescind it with bombers en route to a target, confusing allies and giving them an excuse to not help next time, is a persuasive argument, but none of the Democratic candidates want to make it. Easier to despise the Donald once more. When that’s the only strategy you have, doubling down is all you’ve got in reserve.
The press will be eager to declare a winner of the debates, though if there’s anything shorter-lived than a line drawn in the sand, it’s establishing a credible favorite 17 months before an election. Events will always change perceptions.
Bernie Sanders was the early favorite among the boys on the bus, even if by default. Sentiment carried good ol’ Bernie to an early acclamation, as if everyone owed him something for taking Hillary Clinton in his stead in 2016. His balloon was pricked early.
Beto O’Rourke was an early sentimental favorite. He was just the man-boy to give the Donald a thrashing. Didn’t he almost give Ted Cruz a run for the money in Texas? He was young, energetic and a Xerox of John F. Kennedy. Everyone said so. Nobody has seen or heard Beto for weeks.
The famous boy mayor of South Bend had a couple of good innings. The idea of a male first lady titillated some people until a police shooting of a black man back in South Bend shattered the aura of perfection. Down went the boy mayor.
Pocahontas is the temporary sure thing now, with her fibs about being a squaw forgotten, at least for now. Joe Biden, the man everyone was waiting for, opened up an early double-digit polling over Bernie and everybody else, and the Democrats began ordering new duds for the inauguration. Alas, then someone came up with proof that when he was a U.S. senator he was seen talking to segregationist senators from the South who ran the Senate in those dreadful days of yore. There’s no sure thing left.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.