Here’s a bold prediction: The first Democratic presidential debate will not get the audience that the two Republican ones have garnered. Thanks to Donald Trump and a cast of other bizarro candidates too big for just one telecast, the ratings for the GOP semireality shows have been, to use a showbiz term, boffo.
The Democrats are barely able to fill a stage. Let’s face it, we’ll be watching a tussle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which is like a battle between Ho and Hum. True, there will be other candidates — four of them, whose rankings in the polls fall between dismal and asterisk — but it’s Clinton and Sanders who will steal the show.
Of course, Joe Biden could have made it more interesting, but the vice president, who loves to quote the lessons his mother taught him, is staying out. He’s not declaring his intentions, proving his momma didn’t raise no fool. There’s no good reason for him to participate in this less-than-spectacular spectacle. In fact, there’s no good reason for him to declare his intentions until we have a better idea of whether the Clinton campaign will implode. If it doesn’t, Joe Biden’s last hurrah could end in a whimper, overwhelmed by the organizational and financial head start that even Hillary was unable to fritter away. If she does blow it, then he can emerge as the one who rescues the party, and all the megabuck contributors, from disaster.
The big ratings-getter will be the House Benghazi committee hearings a little over a week later, when Hillary will confront the Republican majority that has used an official taxpayer-funded committee investigation to weaken her campaign. Make no mistake about it, that’s what they set out to do. By now, most of us are familiar with the moment of frankness from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on Fox News (where else?): “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought.”
Well, that bit of candor cost him dearly. McCarthy was the odds-on favorite to replace John Boehner as speaker. But he’s dropped out, learning the hard way that when it comes to ambition in Washington, honesty is definitely not the best policy. There could be other factors involved, but that doesn’t alter the overall impression that the focus on Benghazi has been a hyperpartisan effort to sabotage Hillary Clinton. In reality, Hillary has done her utmost to sabotage herself. Her campaign has been spiraling downward ever since the committee disclosure that as secretary of state, she chose to conduct her official and unofficial business on one private email account, set up on one private server. Whatever purpose that served, all it has done now is to reinforce her reputation as a secretive official, uncomfortable with the requirements of public life, who will dissemble or worse when she is exposed. Her halting, word-parsing response has added to that cloudy image. So when she appears before her accusers on the committee, it will be a show worth watching. In fact, the Republicans everywhere are putting on quite a circus — on the Hill and on the campaign trail.
The Democratic debate will be sedate. It lacks the crass entertainment that The Donald, The Jeb, The Carly and all The Rest bring to the show. What they do have in common is a consistent anti-establishment undercurrent. Actually, it’s an overcurrent. By comparison, the Democrats’ show is a snoozer, unless one gets some kick out of watching Hillary tack leftward to try and outmaneuver Bernie Sanders. It may or may not be tacky, but it won’t matter; most people won’t be watching.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.