With President Trump raging like Shakespeare's mad King Lear on the heath, it can be difficult for an entirely sane politician to get an audience. Assuming, that is, that any psychologically normal person would insert him- or herself into the bizarre spectacle that will be the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Also assuming that Donald J. Trump is the GOP nominee, which appears less certain by the day. If he had any sense, Trump would accept an immunity deal and go back to laundering Russian mob money and pestering Playmates.
But that's not going to happen.
Even so, the contrast between Trump's mad tantrums and the mundane civility of the recent Democratic presidential debate couldn't have been more striking. Somebody has to win the nomination, but a viewer could be pardoned for wondering if anybody on that Ohio stage actually can. There was a dispiriting air of unreality about the whole thing.
Like it or not, an American presidential election is a TV show, and the Democratic debate was a bad one. Did anybody not being paid actually sit through the whole three hours? It's hard to imagine.
It's trite to say that 11 candidates are almost twice as many as can stage an actual debate. But it does have the advantage of being true. Until the voting starts, there's no way to winnow the field down to a reasonable size. So until then, confusion rules.
Then there's the uncomfortable suspicion that none of the leading candidates appears especially convincing in the role. I see no Bill Clinton or Barack Obama; no brilliant political performer. Even if you're favorably disposed toward former Vice President Joe Biden — as I am, partly because he reminds me of my late father — he has appeared less than commanding. Supporters can't help dreading his having a "mature moment" at the podium.
Verbal glitches have little to do with one's intellectual capacity, but everything to do with voter perceptions. (Never mind that Trump appears on the edge of dementia; his cultlike followers literally cannot see it.) Having written that Biden's too old to run for president, I haven't really changed my mind.
But then it's not my decision.
Then there's Bernie Sanders. Putting aside his recent heart attack, Bernie's even older than Biden. It's tempting to leave it right there. True, he appeared as vigorous and stubborn as ever during the debate. His most passionate supporters appear dedicated to re-fighting the 2016 primary against Hillary Clinton, who's actually not running.
Despite his earning roughly 12 million fewer votes than Clinton, many contend that Bernie was cheated. They foresee a mighty wave of working-class voters that will sweep all before it — a fantasy that has tantalized what are now called "progressives" since 1917 or thereabouts.
Dream on, Bernie-crats. Back in 2016, Michelle Goldberg wrote a terrific Slate article headlined "This Is What a Republican Attack on Bernie Sanders Would Look Like." Because Clinton never needed to go negative about Sanders, few voters are aware of the depths to which Trump would be only too happy to sink. Suffice it to say that nobody who served as a presidential elector for the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party — which proclaimed "solidarity" with revolutionary Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis — will ever be elected president.
And there's more, lots more. Not to mention some cringe-worthy writings about underage sex that Sanders would probably like to take back.
No matter. Elizabeth Warren has taken Bernie's issues and pasted a smiley face on them. Sen. Warren appears to have a plan for everything except how to persuade any imaginable U.S. Congress to enact any of her brilliant ideas into law. As a political candidate, she makes a terrific Harvard professor. My own suspicion is that her support has peaked, and that after the actual voting starts, Warren's relative standing among the candidates can only decline.
Keep in mind that I've been wrong before.
Anyway, because nobody wanted to attack Joe Biden under current circumstances, it was Warren whom rival candidates questioned most sharply. She handled it badly. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the two Midwestern moderates in the race — the term "moderate" evidently signifying a Democrat who can count — wanted to know where Warren proposed to get the money and the votes for her "Medicare for All" proposal.
She had no answer, but promised one. The New York Times' Paul Krugman pointed out that Warren "has made policy seriousness a key aspect of her political persona, so her fogginess on health care really stands out."
Klobuchar tartly pointed out that "the difference between a plan and a pipe dream is something that you can actually get done. And we can get this public option done." Meaning that the votes for Obamacare reform are in sight, as they're certainly not for Warren's and Sanders' single-payer scheme.
So can Warren supporters abide compromise? We shall see.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). Email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.