With a confident and controlled performance Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton undoubtedly reached her entire prime target audience in the first Democratic debate of this presidential campaign season.
And her prime target audience had to be impressed by what he saw on his television screen while in the comfort of his well-maintained public housing facility at 3450 Massachusetts Ave. NW in Washington, D.C.
Vice President Joe Biden may well have also realized there may not have been as much room for him on that stage as he once thought – and quite possibly there may no longer be the urgency or need for his candidacy that many once felt there was. Clearly, Biden saw that his former White House Situation Room and Senate colleague is once again capable of campaigning impressively – back after months and years of unrelenting Republican attacks and unsteady moments.
And perhaps Biden noticed that the other Democratic campaign role that has always suited him – being the common man with the straight-talking ways and just-plain decency – is now being ably filled by another of his friends, Bernie Sanders.
We can imagine Biden erupting in his wry grin when the independent senator from Vermont stunned everyone by interrupting to defend Clinton, just minutes after she had pointedly criticized him for being soft on gun control. It came when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper interjected himself into the debate by asking Clinton for the umpty-umpth time about her inexcusable email scandal.
Clinton, who will soon appear at yet another Republican-run hearing ostensibly on the Benghazi tragedy (but which Republicans gleefully brag has successfully caused Clinton’s poll numbers to plummet), began answering that Americans want to hear about solutions to problems.
Sanders, standing behind a modern metal and glass lectern at her right, interjected: “Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”
Clinton, stunned, beamed: “Thank you. Me, too. Me, too.”
Sanders soldiered on: “ … Anderson, and let me say something about the media, as well. … Middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. … The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens Union. Enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
Clinton reached out. The front-running opponents shook hands. “Thank you, Bernie,” she said. “Thank you.”
It was a Joe Biden, common man moment. And back East, watching in the mansion where vice presidents live, Biden was probably envying his colleagues their moment. And maybe sensing their moment may never be his.
Friends and strangers alike cannot help but feel Biden’s pain as if it were our own, as we see him struggling to cope with the recent death of his son Beau while also weighing whether or not he really can and should fulfill Beau’s dying wish that his dad make one more run for the presidency.
Biden is right to be doing his due diligence – political, personal and especially weighing the patriotic calling of his country. Yet, he must also be taking into account his resolve to not enter yet another unwinnable presidential quest, and especially not to be viewed as a spoiler who cost a friend the chance of being the first woman elected president.
After all, if Clinton later encounters a problem, such as a legal crisis over those emails, he can always enter the primaries late, even as a write-in.
For two hours, five Democrats – Clinton, Sanders, Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee – stood behind their lecterns and showed America politicians can actually debate substance during presidential debates. It’s a concept that viewers haven’t seen in the early Republican presidential attack-politics gatherings. The next day, Biden merely told reporters he thought everyone had done well.
Backstage in Vegas, a sixth metal and glass lectern stood bubble-wrapped but at the ready, loaded onto a handcart, just in case you-know-who showed up to debate. But no, Biden isn’t a drama or theatrics guy. Yet as he watched from home, Biden may well have sensed that there may never be a right and proper place for that sixth lectern in this campaign.
Martin Schram, a Tribune News Service columnist, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.