I tend to think of political campaigns as extensions of sports. Winners and losers with clearly defined rules (and participants seeing how just how much they can get away with). To the victors go the spoils. The runner-ups? Largely forgotten.
While watching the NBA draft on Thursday I was thinking of similarities between a sports draft and the presidential campaign, likening this week’s Democratic candidate debates to the combine. Someone will come out of this week anointed as the clear winner, a generational talent looking like the certain No. 1 pick, er, Democratic nominee. A few candidates, much like the football players who look great in shorts and put up crazy-good combine numbers after lackluster college careers, will come up with enough intriguing answers to allow their middling past to be ignored. On the other hand, several who were viewed as having tremendous potential will see their flaws revealed and fall precipitously. And someone, surely, will become Mr. Irrelevant.
But when I thought more about it, the NBA draft is the wrong basketball analogy. The presidential campaign is March Madness. The debates? Juicy early-round matchups.
One one side of the bracket, of course, is Donald Trump. The defending champion. He’ll get about as much resistance as UCLA back in the day, when John Wooden’s teams only had to knock off Rocky Mountain U. and Little Sisters of the Pacific to reach the Final Four.
On the other side, we have the candidates for the Democratic nomination. Lots and lots of and lots of candidates. Nearly enough to fill one-half of the 64-team NCAA bracket.
The top 20 are participating in a pair of debates this week that should get NCAA tourney-like ratings for NBC. Half will fight it out in Wednesday, the other half on Thursday. Just like the opening Thursday and Friday are the best part of March Madness, this might be as good as it gets in this campaign.
The debate pairings were supposedly decided at random but it sure looks like something the NCAA selection committee would come up with — remember a few months ago when they had the brilliant idea of making Duke and Michigan State, maybe two of the three best teams in the country, meet before the Final Four?
Thus, we’ll see Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the first night, but very few other big names — Sens. Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, and former Rep. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas were initially considered serious contenders but have dropped off precipitously while former Rep. John Delaney (of Maryland), and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Tim Ryan, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and Mayor Bill de Blasio would be lucky to get 10 percent of the vote combined.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, we get the blue bloods. Think, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Eric Swalwell, author Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Biden is clearly a No. 1 seed, the No. 1 overall. And the others will be looking to knock him out early. Could Yang, cheered on not by the Cameron Crazies but by the Yang Gang and fueled by his promise of a universal basic income pull of a UMBC-like upset? Don’t count on, but also don’t be surprised if he outperforms his seed.
Used to be that March Madness was filled with seniors making the most of their last chance. Sounds a little like Biden and Sanders, both trying to beat the buzzer with generous portions of makeup applied in an effort to appeal to certain voters who aren’t exactly enthusiastic about their particular demographic.
Warren is that team fans call a fraud and wasn’t even expected to make the Big Dance but surprisingly gets hot and makes a nice run heading into the tournament. Can she keep winning?
Harris is the up-and-comer who might still be a year (or four) away, but could also shock the world if a few of the top contenders are upset.
Buttigieg is the Cinderella Story. He’s VCU the year VCU went from the play-in game to the Final Four — taken more and more seriously as he piles up W’s.
O’Rourke is that team that looks so good on paper but has never actually won anything of consequence, entering March Madness coming off a disappointing loss in his conference tournament.
Booker? That team under a cloud as the tourney begins, with whispers of an NCAA investigation (for the type of infractions the reigning champ got away with nary a slap on the wrist).
Klobuchar? That team made up of bullies and trash-talkers.
The rest? They were all on the bubble and know they’re lucky to have this shot.