Ready for the debates? I hope the candidates are.


This should be interesting. One of the kind of neat ancillary benefits of the way that the DNC chose to populate the stages for the early debates is that it’s a new show every week. In choosing the rosters by lot, the DNC ensured a different line up every time, with different interplay and power struggles.

That is certainly true in this upcoming round of debates. While Joe Biden will still have Kamala Harris on one shoulder, he’ll now have Cory Booker to contend with on his other flank. And while Bernie Sanders is no longer next to Biden, he’s finally getting his mano-a-womano shot at Elizabeth Warren. But at least Beto O’Rourke won’t have Julian Castro throwing shit at him all night over his immigration stance. And of course, Marianne Williamson will be floating around somewhere over the stage on a magic carpet.

While there will be several noticeable differences in this debate, the most obvious one should be fluidity and intensity. The first debates were spring training. While Biden and Sanders have previous Democratic primary debate experience, it was virgin territory for most of the others, and they had opening night jitters. Those should be gone now. Also, as I like to say, tempus does fugit. A month has passed since the first debates, and with it has come plenty of polling, both internal as well as external, to let the candidates know what they have to do. And most of them have to do it soon.

Joe Biden needs to step up, and he knows it. Both Biden and his campaign have signaled that he will be more focused and assured onstage. Biden doesn’t need to punch down, he is the front runner, and will very likely still be the front runner after these debates. He doesn’t need to attack, but he must be more effective at defense. One way to do that is to remind everyone that it was a different world, both politically as well as socially, when the votes he’s being criticized for were held. Of course he would vote differently if those votes were held today. And while he doesn’t need to punch down, nothing says he can’t use legitimate contrast to pop a few ego and record balloons. But another piss poor performance could put his lead in jeopardy.

Oddly enough, both male front runners, and their closest female detractors, face a gender issue. While women frequently and justifiably complain that they have to show more than men to prove themselves, Warren and Harris have to be careful how they do it. If Harris or Warren even appear to be personalizing their attacks against Sanders or Biden, they risk coming across as bitchy, something they obviously wish to avoid. And the same is true for Sanders and Biden. In politics, for some reason everybody likes to pretend that chivalry isn’t dead. If either Sanders or Biden is too sharp, they could come off as “pounding on a woman,” not a good thing. Biden knows this, since in 2008, he had to be careful to show proper respect, even against a mental lightweight like Caribou Barbie.

Both Harris and Booker face a problem with attacking Biden on his civil rights record. Harris can’t hit Biden again over segregationist senators and forced busing again, or she’ll risk looking like a one-trick-pony. And she can’t hit Biden on his crime bill vote, since Booker has already staked that claim. Both of them hitting Biden on the same issue allows him the luxury of deflecting them both with the same answer. And both run the same risk. While Harris got a nice bump nationally after her take down of Biden over civil rights, it barely moved the needle in the African American community. If an attack on his crime bill vote is met with a “different time, different vote” reply that resonates, it could be wasted breath. And though Biden scores lower with black voters under 45, the older voters are the more consistent voting block, especially in primaries.

Bernie Sanders needs to break through, big time, and I don’t see how he does it. This one-on-one match up with Warren should be his dream come true. Both Warren and Harris are leaching far left support from Sanders, support he desperately needs to make a run at Biden, especially since Sanders historically scores miserably with black voters. His problems are threefold. While Sanders may have pioneered a lot of these concepts, they aren’t new anymore, and whining about everybody stealing his thunder isn’t going to get him far. Also, Warren is just flat out more cheerful, charismatic, and a better messenger than Sanders. At its heart, politics is still a sales position, and Warren has a better pitch. And third, while both of them espouse high goals and ideals, only Warren then tells people exactly how she is going to pay for it! Forget about whether it can pass congress or not, people still like to know what it’s going to cost, and how it’s going to be paid for.

Elizabeth Warren has one simple task set before her. All she has to do is to be Elizabeth Warren. She doesn’t have to wale away at Sanders, hell, she could even be gracious and thank Sanders for pioneering these ideas, and bringing them to the fore. Because Warren has one built in advantage over Sanders, and that advantage is semantics. Bernie Sanders is pushing what he has always pushed, a socialist revolution. And while this may work great with the college kids, it’s a major turn off for most older Americans, and a natural target for the GOP. Warren is proposing a sensible progressive agenda, which is what most progressives should be able to fall in behind, and which carries none of the excess baggage that Bernie’s terminology brings.

Beto O’Rourke basically needs a miracle. If he doesn’t ignite some serious kindling at this debate, despite his ability to continue, he may well practically be one-and-done. Beto badly botched his roll out by being too cute by half with his tease and he’s got another problem. He’s having trouble trying to take a campaign run on statewide issues, and convert it over to one run on national issues instead. Beto is desperately searching for one signature issue that he can promote with intelligence and authority, to project competence and ability. But if he doesn’t find it soon, he’s toast.

The rest of the stage, on both nights, is going to basically be a debate mosh pit. It will do these candidates no good to punch all the way up to Biden or Warren, since it will look like a 6-year-old kid telling his 14-year-old brother to take his best shot. It will look silly, and they’ll be ignored by all and sundry. Instead, they’ll either whack away at their closest competitors, trying to score at least one, if not more than one knockout blow, or they’ll cast about for a “Kodak moment” statement, that can give them some oxygen and media coverage. Entertaining TV to say the least, but unlikely to move any needles very far.

That’s the way I see it heading into round two of the debates, it’ll be interesting to see how it all comes out. And on Wednesday and Thursday I’ll try to provide a recap of the previous nights action, just to see how close these prognostications came out. That’s all for now, and keep those cards and letters coming!

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  1. Great notes. I’ll add a few.

    Morning consult poll before 1st debate:

    Biden 38
    Sanders 19
    Warren 11
    Harris 7


    Biden 33
    Sanders 18
    Warren 14
    Harris 13

    Not a tremendous amount of movement. But significant, and in line with the takeaways right after the debate.

    Biden: I concur with your notes. Above all, I think he needs to avoid a narrative that he had two bad debates in a row.

    Harris: the brilliance of her first attack was that it took something in the news that Biden assuredly had a response for, but pivoted to attack him on something else entirely. As a prosecutor, she sure knows how to throw people off guard. If she attacks, look for it to feel like a natural line of thinking while landing a punch the recipient won’t see coming.

    Warren: The Root maintains a weekly list of candidate rankings in terms of how good they are on black issues. Warren is currently sitting in the top slot…that’s interesting. Can she unite progressives and black voters under her banner? That would be a fascinating evolution of the primary.

    Bernie: He’s a very static candidate – same issues, same talking points, same supporters, same downsides, etc. It just seems so hard for him to build from where he is. I’m not sure why. So I see this debate as being more of the same old Bernie.

    The overall lineups: I think there’s a risk to being on the first night. If the second night has big, important moments, I think we might come to think of night one as a kid’s table event plus Warren.

    The channel: I flipping hate CNN. They’re a national embarrassment. The stupid spectacle of the lineup draw shows they aren’t a good place to hold debates. I’m not sure this is overly pertinent, but I wanted to say how begrudgingly I’ll turn to that horrid channel to watch these.


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