Why They're Running: Lessons From the Democratic Debate

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader (who also happens to run a tech company) has an assessment of the debate that I find more useful than a lot of what’s coming from the political pros. Jeopardy-style, he formulates his observations in the form of a question:

Why is Chafee running?  Or, more accurately, for what is he running?
My understanding is:

  • Hillary’s running for President.
  • Sanders is running to make an argument,  to pull the Democrats away from becoming the Grand Old (but Sane!) Party. I think he’s also very eager to make the point that the Democrats should use their tech and communications advantage pervasively, not simply for fundraising and GOTV, and that’s a message he can deliver by running for president without winning anything.
  • Biden is “running” as Hillary’s VP pro tem through November 2016; if something happened to Hillary or if she had decided that she just couldn’t face two years of this, Biden would be there.
  • O’Malley is running for a cabinet position, or a job.
  • Webb is running to be one of the founders of a new center-right party that could grow out of the ashes of the Republican party. He’s running to be John C. Fremont. See also Jon Huntsman.

But Chafee?  He was adorable last night, aside from his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall, a question he fumbled so terribly you’ve got to wonder if that was intentional. But what does he want that being a candidate could help him get?

On the Chafee question, I don’t know. On the rest, I find this a clarifying way to think about the field, especially the notion of Biden as Hillary Clinton’s VP pro tem from now until election day.


Ben Carson has prompted us to question assumptions about the fungibility of intelligence and the concept of “general knowledge.” Apparently you can be a prominent brain surgeon and still not understand, for instance, what a debt ceiling is. I’d count this message, from a person who makes his living in software, as a data point on the other side.