The 2020 Democratic debates are upon us.
With two installments over two nights, featuring some candidates many Americans likely haven’t ever heard of, the performances are intended to whittle the field, but may only overwhelm and confuse voters further.
Whoever emerges better off or worse, we’ll leave with some important takeaways.
Here’s what I’m watching for:
2008 Biden was scrappy — he fought for every supporter, and did the same for former President Barack Obama when named his running mate. He gave a feisty debate performance against a surprisingly formidable Sarah Palin.
2020 Biden seems rusty, or worse, entitled.
He’s done little media, held few public events save for fundraisers, and has lashed out at an opponent who asked him to apologize for racially insensitive comments he made. “Apologize for what?” he demanded. “Cory [Booker] should apologize. He knows better.”
If he takes that attitude to this week’s debates and future ones — that he doesn’t need to defend his record or his words to the American people — it will be bad for Biden.
We’ll also get to see whether Biden does in fact intend to run as a moderate.
Will he distinguish himself from the rest of the progressives by plainly critiquing their more impractical ideas like the Green New Deal, abolishing ICE and forgiving student debt? Or will he use the night to boost his progressive bona fides, to prove he’s not a throwback candidate?
Risks: He’s the front runner, which already comes with a massive target. His recent errors, from flipping on the Hyde Amendment to his racially charged comments, only give his opponents more ammo.
After a rough couple weeks, Buttigieg’s star-turned campaign has been slightly deflated. A police shooting stoking racial tensions at home has challenged the South Bend mayor, who trails Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren at 7% in the latest Morning Consult poll. In this debate, he’ll need to convince voters he’s more than just a small-town mayor — and more than just a media phenomenon.
Risks: He’s playing with the big dogs now, and his “aw, shucks” earnestness might come off as naive next to more seasoned senators who are used to fighting dirty.
Some may remember her sharp performances in recent Senate hearings, where Harris expertly grilled her victims. But for others this will be the first chance they have to see the former prosecutor at work. The question is whether she’ll just subject the president to her powers of prosecution or her opponents as well.
If I were advising her, I’d tell her she isn’t competing for Sanders’ or Warren’s voters, but Biden’s. This is her opportunity to convince viewers she is the tough but pragmatic, younger and more in-touch alternative to Biden.
Risks: Her temptation will be to match the far leftness of some of her opponents, as she’s been tripped up doing before.
He was the protest candidate in 2016, offering up assists to Hillary Clinton and her “damn emails” while pitching his pet issues. Now he’s actually running to be president; he’ll need to show he’s not just up there to pull the party leftward but to lead the country.
If the debate moderators do their jobs, they’ll ask him tough questions about the enormous costs of his policy proposals, and his answers will be crucial. While voters may love his ideas in theory, they might hate them when they learn how they’d be put into practice.
Risks: Sanders’ “angry man” schtick might be endearing on the trail, but at a debate where’s he’s throwing elbows at other candidates, some of whom are much younger and women, it might come off as ill-tempered.
Elizabeth Warren’s coming off a surge in the polls and new momentum.
As such, she’ll be a tough competitor and one few may want to tussle with. After all, she’s got a plan for that. But like Sanders, her challenge is to prove she can be a uniting general election candidate, as well as the leader of blue and red America alike.
Her politics of punishment — she wants to punish banks, CEOs, the wealthy, Facebook, white voters — may be a good primary strategy, but it’s a terrible general election one. She’s in a safe space on the debate stage, but moderates and independents are also watching at home.
Risks: Warren is an effective critic of President Donald Trump and his policies, but she has a tendency to condescend to his voters, many of whom aren’t returning to him this time and might be up for grabs.
For the folks running at or near the bottom, there’s only upside. These debates are their chance — their only chance for some — to break out. My dark horse choice is Rep. Tim Ryan, a skilled public speaker with blue-collar fluency.