Both of These Democratic Debates are Worth Watching

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Looking for the battles that matter? Here’s what you might expect.

Random assignment to conditions is a funny thing: it often doesn’t end up looking random.  Take  the two Democratic debates up this week, on CNN, tonight (March 30) and tomorrow.  While the rules required an equal number of women and of front-runners on each night, they don’t look random in other respects. But both look damned interesting.

Night 1 ended up having an all-white roster, in which the two most leftward of the serious contenders — Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — will take fire from a bunch of mostly moderates who want to make their name by landing a blow against them.

Night 2 ended up having a roster that’s half-white and half racial minority, in which the two more centrist of the four current leaders — Joe Biden and Kamala Harris — will take questions from rivals who tend to be more liberal.  And Biden in particular can expect a lot of challenges about race.  (Harris can expect a lot of challenges about consistency.)

I’ve put together a chart that spitballs some of the most likely and ferocious likely attacks (in red) along with some milder ones we might see (in gold).  Ones with arrows on both ends of the arc will go bilateral; in others, only the receiving side gets an arrow.  I tried to include at least one attack from everyone — although who really knows what, say, Marianne Williamson is going to do.  (If someone receives an attack, then of course they might counterattack.)

Night 1

Expect most of the fire to come in towards Sanders and Warren.  (Their campaigns say that the two of them won’t fight among themselves; I think that we might see a little gentle comparing going on, especially as moderators and rivals try to goad them into it.)  I don’t expect them to have plans to lay into anyone else in particular, but both are capable of a good counterattack.  (The Sanders campaign took on Harris today for her sorta screwy sort of sorta Medicare for sorta all sorta a decade from now plan.  But she’s on Night 2.)

The most fierce attacks on the leading duo will likely come from the most conservative members — Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper, and John Delaney — all of whom want to be known as liberal giant- killers on substantive grounds and who also need to take on the biggest targets to pump air into their leaky tires.  Barring the unexpected, this will be their last time in the spotlight unless they can do something really dramatic.

More measured attacks on the leading duo will probably come from the three hear most likely to pick up Biden’s baton if he stumbles — Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke.  They each have a chance at the nomination and, while they may get in a sharp jab if they can, they aren’t likely to throw desperate roundhouse punches.  I don’t see newcomer Steve Bullock (replacing Eric Swallwell) or Williamson going after them; they need to pass the people in front of them, rather than have their attacks get lost in the barrage of others on their way.

One thing that’s clear is that the debates this year really do seem to matter.  And what matters right now is not only the top spots, but the 5-through-10 spots, which will make it into the fall debates.  (And we have to keep in mind that mega-rich Tom Steyer is likely to use his money and impeachment fervor to snag one of those.)  On this night, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, and O’Rourke will be trying to fend off rivals who want to steal their lunch.

I see three fights as most likely to break out on the wings.  The first is obvious: Beto and Buttigieg are the smart young blarney-vendors who are trying to cover the same territory.  Beto is Irish pretending to be Mexican; Buttigieg is Maltese, but Mayor of the home of the Fighting Irish.  There’s only enough room for one of them in this race (although both are fair bets  to make it through to the fall.)

The others are longer shots.  With Bullock in the race, he needs to define himself as the only Governor who won a race in a state, Montana, that Trump won.  (Hey, as talking points go, it’s not too bad.) The best way for him to do so might be to take on the other (former) western governor in the race, whom he has to pass: ripe target Hickenlooper.  So I see the two of them getting into a brawl that might get them some airtime.

On the other side, Klobuchar needs to define herself — and she just might want to do it by focusing an attack grounded in her experience against a soft-in-all-senses target: Williamson, who probably doesn’t expect to take any fire from anyone.  Alternatively, if Williamson needs a target, crusty centrist Klobuchar, right on the other side of Tim Ryan, might do nicely.  The name of the game is to get camera time, and they could well serve as each others’ foils.

Expect Ryan and Delaney (and maybe Hickenlooper), who won’t get much love from the moderators, to interrupt a lot; expect Williamson and Flobuchar to make them look bad for doing so.  Bullock will get a question or two out of his novelty value.

Night 2

Biden would prefer to be standing in between any other two people out of the other 19 than Harris and Cory Booker, who are competing for similar voters and who each would love to get more “quality time” with Joe.  If he’s the nominee — and he’s still the most likely centrist to get it — he’s really going to be toughened up well from these bouts.  Biden can expect the sharpest punches from Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand — who desperately needs some good moments — and lesser attacks from Michael Bennet, Jay Inslee, and Interrupter Supreme Bill DeBlasio on the wings.  (They’ll each need to make their own airtime by aggressiveness; moderators won’t focus on them except maybe another climate change question to Inslee.

Harris can expect strong attacks from Biden (who owes her one) and Tulsi Gabbard, who has already shown that she’s gunning for the other woman of color in the race by saying that Harris isn’t qualified to be President because she hasn’t served in the military.  This has led many of us to write Gabbard off as being led by desperation into distastefulness, by basically calling everyone in the race except herself unqualified.  I expect Harris to have a strong comeback to her.

I expect Booker to leave Biden alone because he’s fighting for position against the rival on his other side, Julian Castro, who we know from the first debates knows how to stick in a shiv.  I expect that Inslee and DeBlasio might mix it up at some point in a bid for airtime.  The biggest cipher is Andrew Yang, who barely registered in the first debate.  He’s there to pitch a Guaranteed Annual Income as the fix to job loss due to animation — and his best draw would have been to be with Sanders or Warren so he could ask them to address his idea.  Without either there, his best bet is to try to take on Biden, but that’s still not great television.  Booker or Castro might be good targets for him, as both might be likely to bite.  (If he’s sneaky, he’ll say that he’s not directing the question at Biden due to his age, and instead address it to one of the others — which might draw Biden into responding on his own volition.  But he doesn’t seem that deft.)

The expectation at this point for winnowing for the fall debagtes would be something like Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Harris in the top tier, joined by Buttigieg, Booker, Castro and Klobuchar in the next tier, with O’Rourke and Yang on the bubble (with Bullock possibly making a good first showing tonight and Steyer looking to knock one of them off.)  Delaney has the money to stay in the race even without debates and is egotistical enough to do it.  The others — including once potential standouts like Gillibrand and Gabbard — are possibly looking at an early exit.  It will be a fun couple of nights.


About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 (in violation of Roberts Rules) when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Expelled from DPOC in October 2018 (in violation of Roberts Rules) for having endorsed Spitzer over Rackauckas -- which needed to be done. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. One of his daughters co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)