There is an advantage in appearing on the second night, if only because candidates can gauge some likely audience reaction and surmise what kinds of questions do and don’t get asked. Here are seven lessons that Harris, Biden and the rest of the field might take away from Tuesday’s performances.
First, anyone who went out on a limb with Julián Castro in advocating decriminalizing illegal border crossing can scamper back to reality. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg deftly did just that, and so can Wednesday’s contenders. Polling shows the position is a loser, so they’d be well advised to follow Buttigieg’s example.
Second, moderators are likely going to spend significant time on health care. Harris better have answers on how she will raise revenue to fund her newly released plan. Whatever the details of the plan, the most critical aspect of the debate for Harris will be how confident and precise are her explanations. She’ll need to outline how funding won’t mean higher taxes for the middle class and how to accommodate private plans.
Biden, by contrast, will need to explain how adding the public option to the Affordable Care Act gets to much the same position as Medicare-for-all with less cost and disruption. Unlike the candidates on Tuesday, it might be wise for both to go after Trump — who’s the real radical in wanting to destroy the ACA. If Tuesday’s debate could have used more anti-Trump attacks, Biden and Harris likely won’t bypass the chance to go after Republicans’ efforts to eviscerate Obamacare. Showing Democratic voters how they will take on Trump is a key part of the audition for the nomination.
Third, Biden and other moderates shouldn’t stand for accusations that they are using “Republican talking points” when they query opponents on the cost and logistics of their Medicare-for-all plans. It’s not acceptable for Medicare-for-all advocates to deploy the “don’t you dare ask questions that are sure to come up in the general election” as a way of avoiding serious questions. Likewise, Biden won’t gain much by suggesting Harris might have modified her health-care ideas to avoid precisely the attacks that Medicare-for-all proponents are now encountering. (He might instead congratulate her for having seen the light.) However, he’d do well to point out that when all Republicans and a good chunk of Democrats oppose Medicare-for-all, it in all likelihood would never happen. (Hence, why spend this much political capital defending it?) Advocates of Medicare-for-all should think long and hard about pushing an idea that relatively unknown Democrats can savage with well-founded concerns about cost, lack of choice, disruption and political viability.
Fourth, Biden will have an advantage if CNN devotes real time to foreign policy, although he might have to explain why the Obama administration didn’t “end” wars. For Harris and others, the task is to stick to themes that resonate with Democrats (e.g., improving alliances, using diplomacy and soft power, international cooperation on climate change, standing up to China) while avoiding the temptation to sound as isolationist and irresponsible as Trump (e.g., trade wars, fighting with allies). If CNN gives as little time to national security Wednesday night as it did on Tuesday, a serious candidate should bring it up, scold the moderators for ignoring an essential part of the job of president and offer insight into their own foreign policy outlook.
Fifth, a quiet, measured tone can be more effective than hollering, as Buttigieg demonstrated. There’s no need to scream or snap at the moderators, as Sanders did. Conveying confidence without cockiness and toughness without nastiness is key to a strong performance.
Sixth, barring a huge gaffe or another Biden belly-flop, the candidates should be aware that in a 10-person debate, the chances of hugely and permanently impacting the race is low. Especially for Biden, an uneventful debate is a plus. Both Harris and Biden should avoid prolonged confrontations with unknown candidates and pivot to their own message, contrasting their views with Trump’s.
Finally, race, certainly after the Biden-Harris confrontation on busing, might prove tricky for Biden. Unlike the all-white Tuesday lineup, white men won’t be in the majority at Wednesday’s debate. They cannot be perceived as condescending. The risk, by contrast, for Harris is in overplaying her hand by raking Biden over the coals for decades-old views on busing. (Going after his handling of the Anita Hill incident, on the other hand, might be more effective.) Biden gains little by being defensive about the past; what matters, he should stress, is how aggressively he addresses enduring racism.