Sizing up the Democratic field

Published June 27, 2019

By Gary Pearce

Size matters in politics. Yes, physical size: Think Trump looming over Hillary in their debates, or Reagan vs. Carter or George H.W. Bush vs. Dukakis. But just as important is political size, psychic size – call it heft, command presence or the aura of leadership.

The Presidency is a big job. To get there, a candidate has to look like he – or she – can fill it.

At the debates Wednesday and Thursday, Democrats will be listening to what the candidates say about issues and how well they articulate their ideas. Even more, Democrats will be looking for somebody big enough to beat Trump, somebody who can stand toe-to-toe with him in a debate and withstand an assault from a political force that is nothing like we’ve ever seen in American politics.

Some people think Trump is an aberration and that politics will return to normal when he leaves the scene, especially if he serves only one term.

No way. I think he has changed politics forever.

No political figure in America has ever dominated the scene like Trump does. He does it through sheer outrageousness, saying and doing things no politician has ever dared to do or say. He does it by being omnipresent, driving the news cycle not just on a daily basis, but on an hourly and even minute-by-minute basis. He does it by changing direction willy-nilly, saying one thing, then doing the exact opposite, denying he ever said it or did it, then denying he denied it.

When it comes to political and psychic size, Trump is – as he’d say – “yuuuuuuge.”

The challenge to his challengers is: How do I fight this? Debate viewers will be asking: Who can fight this?

Here how I size up the field today.

Joe Biden is clearly the biggest candidate now. He gets that by being in national politics for almost 50 years, 38 years in the Senate, and by being Barack Obama’s Vice President. And, contrary to what a lot of people (including me) expected, Biden’s mouth hasn’t blown off his foot yet.

Bernie Sanders has some size, because he almost beat Hillary Clinton before and he’s back with the same message and same online fundraising machine. But his size really hasn’t grown in this campaign.

Elizabeth Warren is gaining considerable size through a unique strategy, offering a lot of Big Plans that are all about one Big Idea: economic insecurity and inequality in America. There’s something about her serious, almost stern, professorial manner that would make her interesting on stage with Trump.

Kamala Harris stared the campaign with impressive size, but seems to have faded into the crowd. Beto O’Rourke had size thanks to the momentum from his Senate campaign, but he seems to have shrunk driving around the country on his never-ending road trip. Maybe they or somebody like Cory Booker or Amy Klubuchar will explode into stars right before our eyes – or implode into a dark hole.

Pete Buttigieg has grown in size in the campaign, though now he’s facing a test over whether he’s big enough for South Bend. Buttigieg tried a novel approach: Take any and every media opportunity and talk to as many people as possible on TV and online. This upends the longtime conventional media wisdom that you should carefully husband public appearances, stay single-mindedly on message and take no chances.

You can thank Trump for that change. You might ask why Trump does interviews with George Stephanopoulos or Chuck Todd. He does them because he thinks he’ll win any fight with any opponent in any ring, and his confidence shows through.

Trump never seems to prepare or rehearse. He just lets it fly. That gives him an aura of authenticity that escapes disciplined, on-message, over-rehearsed candidates.

As you read this, any number of the Democratic candidates are locked in mock debates with over-caffeinated, over-anxious aides. They’re over-preparing over-rehearsed lines and over-complicated lines of attack.

Maybe they should do like JFK in 1960. Get some sun, take a nap and flip through your index cards. Then go out and show us what a President looks like and sounds like.