On Democratic Presidential Debate Strategy: Night II

By luck of the draw, most of the Democratic presidential candidates currently leading the race – former Vice President Joe Biden, VT Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and CA Sen. Kamala Harris — are scheduled for the second night, June 27. Going on the second night will presumably provide the candidates a better feel for the tone and rhythm of the process, but it’s possible that viewers will be a little less excited by the second night, while being better prepared to assess the night’s exchanges. As to particulars for the Night II panel:

Mr. Biden: is almost certainly the greatest beneficiary of drawing the second night. He and his advisors will hear the barbs that first-night debaters level at him, and have time to hone responses to unanticipated variables. He needs to look SHARP, presidential, above the fray, NOT infirm. He can’t ramble, which leads to gaffes and could create the impression that he’s “slipping.” Due to the dustup caused by his comments about his relationships with segregationist Senators, he particularly needs to be ready on African American issues. He needs to avoid catfights that diminish him while having crisp responses on the Iraq Invasion, the Crime Bill, the Hyde Amendment, his “personal space” issues, etc., etc. He can’t let himself be maneuvered too far left: while advocating for the environment, he must describe a transition plan for displaced traditional energy workers; while discussing the Crime Bill, he needs to mention both his efforts to remedy its shortcomings and the dangers that police officers and black citizens face from crime. He needs to focus on President Trump. He needs effective remarks on NATO, Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. His measure of success is whether he maintains his current standing in the polls on Friday.

Mr. Sanders: Has, now along with Mr. Buttigieg, the most challenging debate assignment. If Mr. Sanders can’t unsettle Mr. Biden, he can’t win; but if he can’t secure the progressive lane against a charging Ms. Warren, he can’t win, either. He must double down on Being Bernie. He must emphasize that this is not a time for middling approaches – an acceptable thrust against Mr. Biden – and that the current progressive movement rose on his back – an implied parry against Ms. Warren. He should stress his normal themes of the working class, free college, Medicare for All, and how to pay for these programs. He should hit at the Obama Administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, a way to gain some of Mr. Biden’s working class support that won’t swing to Ms. Warren. Vitally, he needs to describe his brand of “socialism” to sound as benign as it did in his Fox News Town Hall. He should aggressively attack Mr. Trump, since he has the gravitas to call Mr. Trump a bigot and a liar in a manner that is effective without being offensive. If on Friday his national percentage has notably gone up and Ms. Warren’s has notably gone down – no matter what Mr. Biden’s percentage is – he succeeded.

Mr. Buttigieg: This could be a make-or-break night for Mr. Buttigieg. Last week’s shooting in South Bend of a 53-year-old black man by a white police officer with a turned off body camera requires the Mayor to entirely recast his debate strategy. I previously would have advised him to just “Be Pete,” use his stock lines about the future, his mayoral and military experience, his faith, his marriage depending upon one Supreme Court vote, etc., and concentrate on looking credible standing next to Joe Biden. While he had little African American support before the shooting, he now faces the reality that no Democrat perceived as being half-hearted in support of minority rights will win the nomination or the Presidential election. He currently appears insufficiently sympathetic and responsive to African American concerns. His performance at Sunday’s South Bend Town Hall on the shooting has been panned as too cerebral, not genuinely empathetic. Mr. Buttigieg must thread an extremely fine needle: show his understanding of black frustration while, as Mayor, stating that the process must be allowed to play out. An approach that is undoubtedly true: As a gay man, he does understand what it is like to be stigmatized, slurred, hated — a target – and as Mayor and President, he will act to ensure that none of our citizens have to live in such fear. He needs to explain why the officer’s body camera was off, and what procedures will be implemented to ensure that officers’ cameras are on. If in Friday’s polls he has lost only a little of his pre-shooting support, his debate performance will be a success.

Ms. Harris: she needs to establish running room in one of the campaign lanes. Currently, she appears a glitzy Coaster (easily the best smile in the race) bolstered by California money and the sheer number of California Democratic voters (who are already in any Democratic nominee’s 2020 Electoral College total). Although progressive, she lacks the track records of Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, and thus, her appeal seems to be as an identity candidate in a year shaping up as a clash between moderates and progressives. The focus on African American issues engendered by Messrs. Biden’s and Buttigieg’s recent challenges has perhaps given her an opening to expand her support in the black community at Mr. Biden’s expense. The interesting issue to me will be whether she goes “all in” on progressive and minority issues that might help her win the nomination while imperiling her general election chances, or instead stresses her past as a prosecutor and speaks effectively on foreign policy, trade, and aid for our manufacturing sector that could help her in a general election probably decided in the Midwest. If following the debate she shows notably enhanced strength among black voters and in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, she was successful.

The WAYTOs (“What Are You Thinking Ofs?”): Mses. Gillibrand and Williamson and Messrs. Yang, Bennet, Hickenlooper, and Swalwell: As with the Night I WAYTOs, they need to say something to register on the polling Richter Scale, or it’s time to fold up shop. Hopefully, Mr. Hickenlooper will be shooed home to Colorado to run for the Senate against Republican CO Sen. Cory Gardner.

One thought on “On Democratic Presidential Debate Strategy: Night II

  1. Jim,
    You’ve invested admirably in what to watch. You’re right, IMHO, about what the candidates need to do. Good practical advice — though without meaning to chastise you — I recall your admonition that polls are of little value at this point. So, as a measure of success, I question what real difference it makes that Buttigeig, for example, polls at 5%, 8% or 11%…

    And Charlie Sykes is basically right about how the Dems can blow it and re-elect trump, though several of his points are “straw men” that the candidates undoubtedly recognize as well as he does (e.g., reparations is not a losing issue). I believe a candidate’s support of many such things will be mostly forgotten by the time of the general election. Caveat: Medicare for all is a proposal with enormous ramifications, a political minefield, and so emphasized by some candidates that it is the large exception to this point…. Which relates to my fundamental worry about the campaign and how we view the WAYTOs and the candidates generally:

    Something is broken about this process. I’m not confident I can fully identify it. But it seems the media rewards — with disproportionate coverage — the extremist positions taken by candidates in an effort to win the extreme supporters in the primary process.

    Lost in the shuffle, beyond the media’s narrow focus, are the merits of the candidacies and more moderate proposals of such centrist candidates as Governor Hickenlooper, Congressman and businessman John Delaney and, to a considerable extent, even leader of the pack Joe Biden.

    If the experienced, competent and moderate female candidate (Senator Klobuchar) does not draw nearly level the of media attention drawn by Senator Warren, for example, there is a troubling imbalance in the way the candidates’ qualifications (defined broadly to include approaches and proposals of all sorts) are reported and assessed.



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