It was Donald Trump who gave the best prediction about the latest Democratic debate. “You have three people that are leading [Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders],” he said. “I sort of think that those three people are going to take it to the end.”
He was probably being too kind to Mr Sanders. In practice, the battle is now between Ms Warren and Mr Biden. On Thursday night, the two barely crossed swords. None of the others were able to wound either of the front runners.
Beto O’Rourke made a passionate case for seizing people’s semi-automatic weapons. Kamala Harris made a well-rehearsed pitch for criminal justice reform. Julian Castro virtually ruled himself out of the race by implying Mr Biden had amnesia. It never pays to be the cruel one. Each of the others — Peter Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Andrew Yang — did too little to break through their stubborn one to two per cent polls ceilings.
Which leaves Mr Biden and Ms Warren. That is a problem for the Democratic party. It is fashionable among Democrats to say that any of the candidates on stage would make a better president than Mr Trump. That may well be true. It is a different question as to whom would be best placed to beat him in a general election. With the exception of Mr Sanders, Mr Biden and Ms Warren are the only two candidates with clear theories of why they should be president.
The problem is that they barely overlap. Mr Biden’s case is simple: he could beat Mr Trump. He has some strong polling numbers to back this up. Mr Biden also argues that Mr Trump is an aberration and that he — and only he — could restore America to its previous course. He is on shakier ground here. Ms Warren argues almost the opposite — that American capitalism is in a structural crisis that demands radical surgery. One is moderate and traditional. The other wants to change the face of American politics.
It is hard to imagine either victorious candidate easily assuaging the other half of the Democratic party. It is also quite easy to picture Mr Trump doing better against either of them than today’s poll numbers would imply. In contrast to the most recent Democratic stars, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, who were both in their mid forties when elected, each of Mr Biden and Ms Warren would have trouble uniting the Democratic Party. Mr Biden shows every one of his 76 years. Ms Warren is a more youthful 70. But their weaknesses are stark.
Mr Biden has trouble making a coherent argument. On Thursday night he suggested parents should “put on the record player at night”. This was in response to a question about the legacy of racism in America. Mr Biden is beloved enough in middle America to block the emergence of a more vigorous centrist challenger. But he is too weak — and often tired-seeming — to inspire confidence he could hold up in a general election.
Ms Warren, on the other hand, is energetically clear. But the clarity of her spending pledges would be hard to finesse in a general election. Most of her stances — on universal healthcare, college debt forgiveness and universal primary care, for example — poll well alone. Collectively they amount to a large bet that Americans will drop their aversion to higher taxes. She may be right. She makes a strong case that taxes are the price societies pay for civilisation. But it is nevertheless a punt.
One of the current laggards, such as Ms Harris, might still challenge Mr Biden’s monopoly on the centrist part of the stage. It is harder to imagine who would supplant Ms Warren. Until then, the Democrats are stuck with a less robust field than they might imagine. Mr Trump clearly senses this. When he is panicked he lashes out. His recent commentary has sounded almost detached.