It’s Wednesday, which means tonight is the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential race. Half the qualified field will take the stage at 9 p.m. Eastern time, with the other half set to face off Thursday night.
Below are the 10 candidates on the stage Wednesday, and below that are five key questions I have heading into their clash.
- Elizabeth Warren
- Cory Booker
- Beto O’Rourke
- Amy Klobuchar
- Julián Castro
- Jay Inslee
- Bill de Blasio
- John Delaney
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Tim Ryan
1. Warren’s clear coast?
Perhaps the biggest quirk of the Democratic Party’s crowded 2020 field — and its choice of debate formats — is that it splits up the leading candidates. That arguably accrued to Warren’s benefit, giving her a debate without the two candidates she trails in polls, Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That potentially allows her a platform to push her many ideas while the two old white men fight with one another the next night.
There’s no way to know whether that’s the way it’ll play out, of course. Warren will still have to contend with nine other candidates who know that the best way to break through may be to mix it up with her. Expect some hopefuls — perhaps moderates/pragmatists such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former congressman John Delaney (D-Md.) — to suggest that some of Warren’s policy proposals amount to pie in the sky.
But this setup would seem to play to Warren’s strengths. She’s the one candidate with demonstrated momentum early in the race, and she has achieved this in large part by pushing detailed policy proposals.
She will have a chance to present those ideas on the largest stage yet, and while some of them might be challenged by her opponents, it’s difficult to see who might honestly knock her off her game or even have an appetite to try. She’s a strong debater, if history is any guide, and this debate isn’t exactly chock-full of brawlers.
This would seem a big opportunity for Warren to keep on doing what she’s been doing, which has been quite successful thus far.
2. Spartacus or Mayor Booker?
Not only are Biden and Sanders on the stage Thursday night, but so are Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg. That means this first debate could prove a solid opportunity for those who reside in the second tier to insert themselves into people’s consciousness.
And if one of the first-night debaters has both an opportunity and a need for a strong showing, that person is Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
The problem with Booker is that you never know what you’ll get. You could have the fast-rising former Newark mayor profiled in the documentary “Street Fight” who had people talking him up as a future president more than a decade ago. Or you could have the senator who often seems to go a little overboard — declaring his own quasi-“I am Spartacus” moments and such.
I’ve said from the beginning that Booker might be the biggest boom-or-bust candidate in this field. He can be at turns quite compelling and appear to be trying way too hard. Tonight begins what seems in many ways to be something of a delayed campaign launch. It’s not do-or-die, but Booker would do well to show donors and party leaders something he hasn’t really thus far.
3. Is O’Rourke substantial?
Speaking of arrested development in the 2020 field, next on that list might be former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.). The question from the start was whether he had the heft to compete, or whether his inspired 2018 near miss against Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) was about Democrats’ hating Cruz more than they actually liked O’Rourke.
O’Rourke’s biggest task is proving that there is substance behind his style. The passion is there, and he has shown an ability to inspire in the right circumstances. But what happens when you’re competing against other Democrats who can do the same and the focus isn’t on you, by default? What sets you apart?
The biggest early criticism of O’Rourke is that he’s big on physical demonstrativeness and light on policy. I’d expect him to come into this debate ready to talk lots of specifics and make the case that Warren isn’t the only candidate with a “plan for that.”
If he doesn’t, it’ll become easier and easier to write him off as someone out of his element, which is a threatening narrative at this point.
4. The wisdom of the format?
Count me among those who are skeptical of this format. In 2016, the Republican Party handled a crowded field like this quite differently, allowing those who had the most support to share the same debate stage. The rest were relegated to the much-less consequential “kiddie table” debate earlier the same night.
The risk of the present format for Democrats is that it stifles actual debate. What happens when Wednesday’s candidates start talking about issues that involve Biden but he’s not there to represent or defend himself? What happens when different questions are asked on the two nights? What happens if there’s nobody to check Warren and then the next night Biden gets it from all sides, simply by virtue of whom he’s matched up against?
This will be a tough balancing act for the moderators, the candidates and the party. The Democratic Party’s approach to this is perhaps reflective of the party’s desire to give everyone a chance — an extension of the party’s broader ethos, in contrast to the GOP’s more capitalistic approach — but the approach is also untested and carries significant potential pitfalls.
5. Some love for moderation?
The conventional wisdom of the 2020 Democratic race has been that these candidates will be climbing over one another to get to the left. But Wednesday’s debate could challenge that assumption.
I’ve already mentioned that Klobuchar and Delaney seem to be running on realistic results rather than aspirational goals. Likewise, Booker has shown himself to be more of a pro-business Democrat in the past, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) seems to be emphasizing an appeal to moderate working-class voters in the Midwest, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) is certainly something of a wild card, having occasionally been one of Fox News’s favorite Democrats. (It’s easy to dismiss her as a potential nominee, but she should not be dismissed as a player with a potential constituency.)
There will certainly be red meat for liberal voters Wednesday night, including from Warren, liberal New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and climate change-focused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. But some Democratic pollsters have cautioned that the primary electorate is more nuanced than we are led to believe, and some of these candidates seem to think there is a path more toward the middle — even with Biden in the race.
Let’s see how the field addresses the clear leftward shift in the party’s politics. It could surprise you.