Good news: all the major Democratic candidates are on one stage tonight. No need to treat a presidential debate like the political equivalent of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, requiring return attendance on multiple nights.
Bad news: If you really care to watch the whole thing you must devote three hours of your life to ABC News and the Democratic National Committee. Candidates and audience alike may wish they were wearing Depends.
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The thesis of most political journalists is that these ecstatic hours of debate will be even more stimulating if they are preceded by hours of intense anticipatory speculation about what might happen.
In that spirit, let’s examine five questions that we can’t answer right now but we will be able to answer when this latest debate is over.
Do we really care?
Here’s an off-ramp to stop reading — or even to skip watching the debate altogether — if you are inclined to take it.
It’s an awkward truth for those of us who obsessed before and after this summer’s previous Democratic encounters — two sets of debates over four nights — that it’s hard to argue they mattered that much.
There seemed plenty to talk about: Wow, Joe Biden sure seemed off his game. Check it out: Kamala Harris is coming on very strong. Just my imagination or did Cory Booker have a good night?
Alas, it was just imagination. The basic structure of the race was the same before the debates as now: Biden durably atop the race despite lots of evidence that suggest he is stylistically and substantively wobbly; Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both clearly strong players; everybody else looking with various degrees of plausibility and desperation for a way to break in.
Arguably the most important impact of the debates may not relate to the candidates’ performances but to the Democratic National Committee’s. The party’s rules for who is doing well enough in polls and fundraising to qualify for the crowded debate stage are serving a candidate-winnowing function that used to be played by the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. Ten candidates qualified for the debate but another ten did not; four additional candidates who were going to miss the threshold dropped out.
Replacing the judgment of Democratic voters with the arbitrary formulas of Democratic political operatives may be a dubious achievement in a populist age. One question to be answered tonight: Whether the benefits of a smaller debate field are worth the cost of excluding oxygen-starved candidates before a single vote is cast.
Can Biden quell the carping?
Maybe (in re: above) individual debate performances don’t matter. But it also seems not sustainable long-term for the former vice president to be living with the disjuncture that defines his candidacy now: Strong in polls and endorsements with key constituencies (labor and African-Americans, in particular) but weak with groups (political operatives and the reporters they talk to) that are doing sniff-tests every day on whether he is crisp enough, quick enough, contemporary enough to endure the nomination fight and be an effective challenger to Donald Trump.
A genuinely commanding performance — as opposed to phew, made it through another one—would do a lot to shore up those groups already with Biden and quell the voices who are plainly eager to say, Told you! It’s just not his time.
What is the Sanders-Warren dynamic?
Lots of people keep waiting for Sanders and Warren to go after each other, and are puzzled it hasn’t happened yet. The theory is that this race isn’t big enough for two heroes of the left.
Over the long-term that’s obviously true, since one person will be the Democratic nominee and twenty-some candidates will not. But my colleague Holly Otterbein has been an early voice illuminating a key element of the race: Warren and Sanders so far aren’t yet really brawling for the same voters. Her support tilts older, more female, highly educated. His is younger, less educated, more male, a bit more racially diverse. For now, their interests are aligned in slowing Biden and pushing the party broadly to the left.
But these two don’t need to attack each other to draw contrasts. Even Warren praising Sanders, or vice versa, could be a subtle way of saying, Let’s face it, Bernie/Liz is an admirable novelty candidate but I’m the one going all the way.
Both candidates believe American politics needs root-and-branch structural change, not just the progressive incrementalism promised by Biden and most other contenders. So it is a genuinely honest debate — not mere indulgence of journalists’ appetite for conflict — over which of these two is more credibly positioned to deliver for the left.
What is the role of “electability”?
Campaigns like to say they are concerned with ideas and substance not “process” — except when they want to talk about process.
Who can win the general election is in some sense the ultimate process question, and an entirely legitimate one very much on the mind of many Democrats. But it is rare for candidates, as opposed to operatives, to engage arguments like I can win Wisconsin and I don’t think she can, or Did you pay attention to what happened in that special election in North Carolina this week?! We are getting hammered with rural voters.