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  1. Opinion

It’s not about public policy with the Democrats. It’s populism vs. pragmatism. | Adam Goodman

Heading into Thursday’s debate, Joe Biden looks vulnerable.
Adam Goodman Graphic [TARA MCCARTY | Tampa Bay Times]

Ten Democrats with the West Wing on their minds are advancing to the next episode of “Survivor.” They meet this week on a debate stage in Houston, where promises will grow bigger, tempers shorter and playbooks thicker with one-liners aimed at earning a title shot at America’s ultimate fighter, the president.

The guessing game about what could happen in Round 3 of the Democratic presidential debates has America’s pattering pundits at full roar. As always, though, there are far more questions and far fewer certainties.

Will Elizabeth Warren escape the caricature as a lecturer and offer a more engaging approach that is as appealing to Democrats as her policy prescriptions? Can she inform without inflaming, teach without taunting, engage without enraging?

Is it possible Bernie Sanders can shake off the shackles of a slow campaign start to go full Bern again? Short on patience and long on audacity, Sanders still scares the daylights out of Americans who fear he’s too honest, that he actually means what he says.

Can Kamala Harris ever explain to base Democratic voters how her tough-on-crime pedigree was not in practice tough-on-minorities, and that her steely demeanor is not an act to hide a political glass jaw?

Mayor Pete, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar? Well, all three spout common sense, sport respectable credentials, and project reasonable demeanors. That means they have no bloody chance to prevail.

Will there be any late-in-the-game yen for Yang, Beto or Castro? Don’t bet on it.

All of which brings us to Joe Biden, the reluctant frontrunner who can’t outrun his galling gaffes or his penchant for dated pablum. It takes punch and passion, Joe, not winks and wrinkles to inspire throngs of true believers to believe again and, most importantly, to flock to caucuses in chilly February and polling centers in early March.

It’s easy to see how “easy Joe” could be upset in Iowa, snowed out in New Hampshire and surprised in Nevada – a big 0-for-3 heading into what would be branded his firewall, the South Carolina primary in late February. Ask one-time GOP frontrunner Rudy Giuliani how that turned out for him, when his electoral firewall (Florida) turned out to be his version of a border with no wall.

Although the Democratic nomination fight is quickly devolving into a three-way Biden-Warren-Sanders showdown, it will not be won by ideology (liberal versus moderate) but by the tectonic shift now driving political fortune (and misfortune) in democracies across the planet.

The populists have the pragmatists on the run, with little to stop them.

What feels good is winning out over what may be best, fueled by the frenetic force of social media that’s summarily replacing institutions with more instinct and experience with emotion, and professionals with pretenders.

From “Brexit Boris” (Johnson) in Britain and “macho Matteo” Salvini in Italy, to “le-anti semite” Marine Le Pen in France, the road to power is being repaved with populism: take on the system, and the elites, with everything you’ve got. Compel the masses to storm the fort, regardless of consequence or collateral damage. All ends justify all the means.

America is not foreign to this concept of talking back to power. Andrew Jackson took on Alexander Hamilton and the elites in the 1830s; William Jennings Bryan did the same at the dawn of the 20th century; more recently, the master “apprentice” used it to win the presidency, leaving most in shock and awe.

Populism is now headed Thursday night to Houston, with two givens. First, Sanders and Warren will attack the system as corrupt, compromised and broken, without explaining how their $100-trillion in new spending won’t break America’s economic back.

The other certainty: Biden, with less visceral punch, will do his best to defend the system. Like Hillary Clinton before him – he is the system. It’s abundantly clear the Democratic base isn’t hungering for more of that. Yet it wants to win.

Forget the early polls. Biden is on the ropes. While noble, his appeals to the past (and to his bona fides as a seasoned, moderate, Obama-loving consensus-builder) are being drowned out by two fire-and-brimstone populist contenders daring anyone to challenge them.

Now here’s the fascinating part.

Imagine a freshly crowned populist from the left squaring off against the ultimate populist from the right a year from now. Get your tickets early for that one, because every campaign playbook would fly right out the window…and into the annals of history.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in St. Petersburg and the first Edward R. Murrow Fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.