Ten Debating Democrats Giving It the Old College Try
Credit the folks at ABC News’ political division: They managed to convince their network’s executives to set aside three hours of prime time for Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston.
Maybe the political team got away with it because the entertainment side realized that this is close to what passes for business as usual at ABC. A week from Thursday, in the same 8 p.m. time slot: “Celebrity Family Feud.”
Or it could be as simple as the network suits understanding that there’s not much else airing on Thursday night (including an unglamorous NFL matchup between Carolina and Tampa Bay).
Now, if the debate had clashed with a meaningful college football game, I’d have objected. Not that college football is the answer to all societal ills, but it does offer welcome relief from the day-to-day silliness of this election.
It’s also one way to make sense of this crowded Democratic field.
Here’s a rundown of the 10 candidates debating in Houston, as seen through their college football alter egos (and presented in order per the RealClearPolitics polling average).
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Football Alter Ego: Clemson Tigers
Why Clemson – other than it’s in the same state Biden hopes to turn into an early-primary firewall next winter? Because Biden remains the front-runner – and the defending national champs enjoy what’s arguably the clearest path to the four-team playoff and a shot at a second straight title.
Plus one other factor: While Clemson is off to a good start in its first two games, there’s a nagging sense among the fan base that the team isn’t firing on all cylinders – certainly not at the same level of the beatdown it handed Alabama in last season’s championship game.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
Football Alter Ego: Alabama Crimson Tide
I’m wedding Bernie to ‘Bama for two reasons. First, just as Sanders no longer finds himself alone as the crown prince of socialist largesse (Bernie wants to spend trillions to combat climate change, as do at least four other Democrats), Alabama has competition in its space – namely the Southeast Conference – with Auburn, Georgia and LSU all looming as intraconference threats.
The other Bernie-Bama connection: whining. Bernie complained that the Democratic National Committee had it in for him in 2016; his campaign is now whining about media bias in 2020. Meanwhile, Alabama’s players and coaches refuse to admit the obvious: Clemson simply outplayed them last time.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren
College Football Alter Ego: Georgia Bulldogs
Safe to say that Sen. Warren would rather vacation in Athens, Greece, than Athens, Georgia. “Between the hedges?” Would that be an afternoon of Georgia football or the senator explaining her heritage?
Why Warren is this field’s Bulldog: because Georgia is the fashionable pick to crash Alabama and Clemson’s party, just as her rise in the polls makes her a betting favorite to eventually overtake Sanders and Biden.
California Sen. Kamala Harris
College Football Alter Ego: USC Trojans
Harris too would like to tap into some magic and tradition – Democrats going with another multi-racial nominee in 2008; in 1960, a youthful senator delivering his convention speech in that aforementioned coliseum across from the USC campus.
The only downside to the USC parallel: The team is on a roll and back in the national rankings. But thanks to a tough early schedule, USC could easily lose its next four games. Sounds a bit like what happened to Harris between the first and third debates: a breakout moment, followed by a struggle to regain her mojo.
South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg
College Football Alter Ego: Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Was there any other choice (it’s a 10-minute drive from South Bend’s city government complex to the home of “Touchdown Jesus”)?
Why the Irish? Because they sit in the second half of college football’s Top 10, which means the path to a championship requires a lot of faltering on the part of those ahead of them. The same goes for Buttigieg, whose hopes rest on leapfrogging the field in Iowa.
Buttigieg may pose as the underdog in the race, which makes him this field’s Rudy. Fast-forward to next summer’s Democratic convention in Milwaukee and a film biography of the mayor set to that movie’s soundtrack – thousands of Democratic delegates chanting: “Rudy ... Butti ... Rudy ... Butti.”
Businessman Andrew Yang
College Football Alter Ego: University of Central Florida Knights
I’ll be brief: The Orlando mega-school (68,000 students) wants to be taken seriously. Despite going undefeated in the 2017 college season, it was left out of the playoffs. And probably will again this year should it once again run the table.
Yang – he of a government-guaranteed $1,000/per month Universal Basic Income and a fierce Twitter following (#Yanggang) – wants to be taken seriously. The Democratic establishment would prefer that he go away – or, if he won’t, at least stop ripping Biden and Barack Obama.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker
College Football Alter Ego: Stanford Cardinal
Of course, because Booker played football on “The Farm” (two seasons as a tight end). But also because Stanford’s present football struggles (a 1-1 record, a tough schedule ahead) reflect Booker’s political path.
From 2010-2016, Stanford went 76-18 with five bowl wins. From 2017 to present, the record is a less-elite 19-10 – and the team was pushed all over the field in its second game by Kamala Harris, er, Southern Cal.
Booker likewise peaked in the first half of this decade, making the leap from Newark mayor to U.S. senator and Hillary Clinton’s short list for a running mate. Since then, he’s struggled to gain traction in the Democratic field despite repeat efforts to come across as the most woke candidate in the bunch.
So much for hopes of postseason glory.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke
College Football Alter Ego: College of Charleston Cougars
O’Rourke is about as authentically Texan as a bowl of clam chowder (apparently, Texas presidential voters agree), which is why he doesn’t get a Lone Star school.
Why CoC? Two reasons: Like O’Rourke’s Texas heritage (he prepped at Woodberry Forest in Virginia, then attended Columbia), the College of Charleston isn’t as Deep South as you think (about one-third of its 2018 enrollment included non-South Carolina students).
Besides, the College of Charleston gave up football in 1923. And O’Rourke keeps shifting his core rationale as a candidate in rebooting his flagging campaign.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar
College Football Alter Ego: Army Black Knights
There she sits in the back of the pack (ninth in the RCP Average of the 10 debaters), running a campaign that’s retro – a candidate who wants to appeal in common-sense, practical Midwestern terms.
“Retro” also applies to Army football – a triple option offense that this year and last took powerful Oklahoma and Michigan teams to double-overtime before losing.
In a more just universe, the football players who will serve their country in harm’s way would have walked away with upsets of college football’s elite programs. Just as Klobuchar should be more than a bit player in this field.
Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro
College Football Alter Ego: University of Texas Longhorns
On paper, a talented Texas team should be competing for a spot in the top five of college football. On the field, the Longhorns came up short last week in a home loss to LSU.
On paper, Castro should crash the top of this field – the son of a Chicana activist (who came to the U.S. as an orphan) and the only Latino in the field, arguably the candidate best suited to talk about race, immigration and border policy.
Yet Castro’s campaign struggles for traction (some polls have him trailing Buttigieg among Latino Democrats).
If only Tom Steyer, the California hedge-fund billionaire, had qualified as the 11th candidate for the Houston debate (it looks like he’ll participate in October’s debate in Ohio). We’d have to find a college football program that’s trying to buy its way shamelessly to a national championship.
Gee, where to begin?