The Coming Debate Slog in South Beach
Well, now that that’s settled…
NBC News on Friday announced the lineups of Democratic presidential candidates who are appearing on stage this month on each night of the first debate of the 2020 race.
The first group of 10 appearing on Wednesday, June 26:
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota
Former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
The second group of 10 appearing on Thursday, June 27:
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
Sen. Kamala Harris of California
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana
Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado
Author Marianne Williamson
Rep. Eric Swalwell of California
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado.
With two nights and 20 candidates, it is highly likely the debate festivities will be less Rumble in the Jungle and more Slog in South Beach.
The thing that jumps off the list is Senator Elizabeth Warren. 4 of the 5 top polling candidates are gathering on Team Purple for night two, leaving Warren to headline Team Orange on night one. Our friend Will Truman thinks this is the inevitable screw job that was going to happen due to the DNC’s lack of will to winnow the field to a reasonable size, nor relegate the kids to the kids table debate. I don’t know that I would go that far; I see the opportunity laid out for her as undoubtedly the biggest name on the stage for night one. Though the first debates generally shouldn’t mean much, it is put up or shut up time for Elizabeth Warren. If she cannot conquer the likes of 1%ers De Blasio, Ryan, Inslee, Delaney, Gabbard, barely doing better Booker, a flailing Beto O’Rourke, and struggling for attention Klobuchar then she isn’t the candidate so many have been insisting is surging the last few days. At the same time her strength, policy wonkiness, is going to be stifled by the quick-moving soundbite fest this format will be. She should dominate. If she doesn’t, it’s on her and her alone, not the format. She won’t win the nomination on the 26th, but she could lose it.
Night two brings the, supposedly, heavy hitters of Team Purple. Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg have combined with Warren to be the top five since Biden finally announced, though the order has shuffled a bit. With four of the top five together, the dynamics for night two will be far different. The question is how much do the candidates take shots at the frontrunner Biden. They are joined by the baffling pitiful candidacy of Kirsten Gillibrand, the wild card of Andrew Yang, and the Colorado connection of Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Marianne Williamson will also be on the stage for some reason.
Any prognostication of who will and won’t do well has to be tempered by the horrible mechanics of it all. With ten mouths to feed per evening, we are likely to only get 60-90 second soundbites and almost no fluidity to the evening as the moderators try to move it along and candidates try to do the exact opposite. There will also be a great deal of homogenous thought and agreement. Every campaign staff saw the videos of Delaney and Hickenlooper getting booed by California Democrats for their rhetorical excursions off the bases’ preferred ideological reservation, and while the well-curated debate audience should be mostly behaved no one wants boos to be their first impression. The one thing that is for sure, there will be plenty of talk about President Donald Trump. How much they attack each other will also dictate the flow, as the recipient of any barbs will demand a chance to respond regardless how against the run of play it is. The Republicans found out the hard way simple things, like introducing the candidates to the stage, get harder with a larger field. The Democratic field is now twice what they dealt with. Get three or four demanding time, at the same time, and things break down quickly. Fortunately, sanity has prevailed and the 3rd debate will rid the stage of the 1%ers and a few others, and get down to a more manageable 7 or 8 candidates in the run-up to Iowa.
But first we have to go through the duel debates at the ebb tide of June in Miami. Someone will rise in prominence afterwards, since all the commentators and media have the “X candidate breaks through” pieces all ready to go once you fill in the name and corresponding viral moment. That is how these debate things work: the frontrunners either maintained or failed, the challengers improved or didn’t, the also-rans annoy folks who want to hear from the first two. Like an auto race, many will tune in to see the big wreck, should it occur, and watch in morbid fascination should one of the candidates spectacularly flame out on live TV. The best thing for the top-tier in this carnival of confusion is just to get out of the debates unscathed. Like Elizabeth Warren, none of them will win the nomination on those two nights in June. But they could lose it. And they know it. So expect boring from the top candidates, desperation ranging from forced to cringeworthy from the bottom candidates, and a whole lot of mediocre political television.
Can’t wait to watch it.