On an individual basis, former vice president Joe Biden has yet to show he’s up to speed and sufficiently in tune with the party (if not its left fringe, than at least the majority of center-left voters). South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg still struggles to earn support from African American voters; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has yet to prove that he, rather than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), should be the progressive standard-bearer; Warren must still defend her Medicare-for-all proposal; and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) continues to fight the perception she lacks clarity on health care and other policies (although timely rollout of her health-care plan should help in that regard). All others must make the case, in what may be their final chance to move opinion before the requirements for the September debate effectively cull them from the field, that they are viable contenders.
However, much has changed since last month, reaffirming how fluid is the race and how premature it is to predict the winner. Biden’s supporters hope his poor June debate performance woke him up, forced him to focus on his Democratic rivals, spurred him to sharpen his arguments against more progressive contenders and relieved him of any felt need to go easy on opponents. He’s now plainly anxious for a rematch against Harris, who ate his lunch in June. The trick will be in puncturing her newfound aura of strength without appearing to be just another old, white guy bully. He has stopped the political bleeding over the past couple of weeks, but another poor performance will raise serious doubts about his viability. Arguably, the debate is more important for Biden than any other contender.
One strength Biden possesses is the ability to pummel and aggravate Trump, to portray himself as the defender of the little guy — which included the city of Baltimore that Trump defamed and nonwhite Americans who have no place but America to “go back" to. Biden’s initial rollout featuring Trump’s Charlottesville remarks should remind us how effective he can be when he calls out Trump as a racist. Now, he must combine that with a full assault on Trump’s patriotism and loyalty. Despite the Republicans’ propaganda machine and the media’s deliberate obtuseness, Robert S. Mueller III confirmed that Trump essentially betrayed America: His campaign invited foreign help, didn’t report it when Russian-backed assistance arrived on his Trump Tower doorstep and then capitalized on it — all the while shedding doubt on whether he’d do it again. “Traitor” is a strong word, but it’s one Biden could deploy convincingly.
Harris has joined the top tier and will likely find herself under attack for everything from her fuzziness on health-care strategy to her (sort of) defense of busing. Rather than sit back to wait for attacks, the former prosecutor may choose to continue her two-pronged attacked on Trump and Biden, intimating that the former vice president isn’t the most effective person to galvanize the base. Biden’s campaign reacted harshly to Harris’s new health-care plan, suggesting in a written statement that her plan is less honest than Sanders’s in providing a funding mechanism. (“To their credit, the Sanders campaign has been honest that the only way to enact Medicare for All without substantially raising taxes on the middle class would require ‘unicorns’ and ‘magic wands.’”)
Finally, Warren finds herself in a different position as well. She has pulled even with Sanders and demonstrated that she has the most complete agenda of any candidate (whether one agrees with it or not). She’ll also face new scrutiny. How is she funding Medicare-for-all (someone is going to start challenging her wealth-tax math), and how’s she going to achieve a policy objective that lacks even unified Democratic support?
In sum, Tuesday and Wednesday will provide the last chance for 15 or so candidates to break through, and will either cement the impression Biden is past his prime or reaffirm he’s the true front-runner. Along the way, we might even learn how the contenders will address the Iran tanker incidents, how they’d “win” the trade war with China and what, if anything, they’d do about the gargantuan debt.