DETROIT — Tonight's 10-candidate Democratic debate in the Fox Theatre will be a major media event and a pivotal moment in the presidential primary. And it's not expected to change much of anything.
After a live-on-TV drawing, CNN divided the debates into two nights that separated several feuding candidates while scheduling a “rematch” for former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California. That rematch is going to happen Wednesday.
Tonight's debate will surround the two most liberal candidates in the race, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), with candidates who have positioned themselves as moderates: Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Maryland congressman John Delaney; former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper; Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar; former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke; and Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan. Behind the 10th lectern: Marianne Williamson, a spiritual author whose politics are hard to nail down.
Here's what to watch tonight:
Sanders vs. everybody. Last month, the senator from Vermont delivered a solid, on-message debate performance — one that went completely unnoticed as the national discussion turned to the debate about busing between Biden and Harris. The argument between Sanders and Biden about health care hadn't even begun; it was left to the moderators, and to struggling candidates like Colorado Sen. Michael F. Bennet, to attack the feasibility of Medicare-for-all.
Thanks to the two-night staging, we're still not getting the Sanders-Biden showdown, and we're not going to see the Sanders campaign's argument with Harris, whose own “Medicare-for-all” plan phases in slowly and does not prohibit private insurance plans that mirror the government's own plans.
What we could see is Sanders going after the moderators, the media in general and the candidates onstage who want voters to see Medicare-for-all, total student debt cancellation and the rest of the Sanders agenda as political poison. Sanders absolutely relishes the opportunities to make fun of these questions, as he did in a Monday CNN call-in in which he repeatedly dismissed the premise of Jake Tapper's insurance market questions.
“The private insurance companies may be greedy — they may be many things — but they're not stupid,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Warren have said they're friends and have declined to criticize each other in the past. There are lots of ways he could go after her, if he chooses to, on foreign policy and on her commitment to his Medicare-for-all bill; on the left, there's plenty of discussion of how Warren's litany of plans does not include a specific health-care plan. Sanders may get what he needs by taking on the premises of the media and the many centrist candidates on either side of the stage.
Hickenlooper vs. himself. Back in June, John Hickenlooper began warning that his party could not win if it was tagged as “socialist.” Since then, he's turned over his campaign staff and fallen behind on fundraising but continued to tweet about the risk of Democrats running against the private sector. (“We proved in Colorado that you don't need big, expensive government programs to achieve progressive goals.") Hickenlooper is at severe risk of being cut from the next debates, and he has never been an aggressive debater; the thing to watch is if desperation changes up or tightens his arguments.
Delaney vs. Sanders and Warren. In the run-up to the Miami debates, in June, Delaney's campaign made it known that he would attack Warren over her support of Medicare-for-all. (Warren was on the same stage as him, but not Sanders.) Then came the debate, and Delaney … didn't attack. He made a punchy case against “taking health care away” from people who liked their private plans but did not swing back to the Massachusetts senator.
That probably can't happen again if he wants to make the stage in September. Delaney, who has lacerated Warren for “outsourcing her health-care plan to someone who isn't even a Democrat” (i.e., Sanders), basically came up with his attack lines when the last debate was over; with little chance of making the September debates, tonight is his last chance to attack her in person. But both the Warren and Sanders campaigns view Delaney as a nuisance, a wealthy candidate buying his way into the race.
O'Rourke vs. Buttigieg. On paper, two of the youngest candidates in the race should be elbowing each other. They're competing for lots of the same voters, and many of the soft O'Rourke supporters of February became soft Buttigieg supporters in June. But Buttigieg has refused to criticize any of his rivals, and O'Rourke did the same, until recently, when he made an offhand comment in a campaign video about his penny-pinching travel: “No private planes for this campaign!” That was widely read as a joke at the expense of Buttigieg, who last quarter led the field in fundraising and in private plane rentals. O'Rourke is one of several candidates who could attack Buttigieg for holding so many high-dollar fundraisers, and he's the only candidate to hint at it.
Williamson vs. Medicare-for-all. The self-help author's style has gotten her pigeonholed as a left-wing candidate, but that's not who she is. Williamson combines an overall “woke” approach to politics — she was the first candidate to call for reparations for the descendants of slaves — with a vision of pragmatic, healing politics. At this month's AARP forums in Iowa, Williamson made clear that she did not support Medicare-for-all as Sanders imagined it.
“I want to be an agent of change,” Williamson said. “I don't want to be an agent of chaos.”
If there's going to be a twist tonight, it could be Williamson inserting herself into an argument about whether the two highest-polling candidates are realistic enough.
Bullock vs. voter apathy (and Klobuchar). The governor of Montana will finally have his chance to make the most concise 2020 argument: He won in a red state and nobody else has. Bullock, like the other moderates, has attacked Sanders's health-care plan as something that would disrupt peoples' lives when there are probably better ways to expand coverage. His pitch is actually quite similar to Klobuchar's — she, too, emphasizes how many Trump voters she's been able to win over — and he has the one-time advantage of novelty, having never appeared on this stage before.
Warren vs. … well, not Sanders. The senator from Massachusetts drew the lower-profile, lower-stakes debate night in both June and July, and her campaign is at peace with that; her team doesn't expect a debate to really matter until September, when the higher qualifying thresholds is likely to keep most candidates offstage. Her strong June performance helped her, as she ticked up in polls and (just as importantly, in Iowa's caucus system) favorability. And she has cheerfully swatted away any question about how she might face Sanders.
“Look, Bernie and I are friends,” she said yesterday in Toledo. “I'm going to talk about what's wrong, to talk about how to fix it, and to talk about how to build a grass-roots movement.”
Warren's ally, if she sticks to that theory, is the clock. How many of the 120-odd minutes onstage are really going to be spent on the nitty-gritty of single-payer health care? What's the downside if she doesn't grapple with another candidate? (Some analysts wondered if Warren would suffer because moderators ignored her during the second half of her June debate. It didn't matter.)
"Candidates expecting explosive faceoffs sharpen their lines for round two of the Democratic presidential debates,” by Matt Viser and Sean Sullivan
Everything you need to know about the exchanges of jabs and the trades of blows.
“Journey to power: The history of black voters, 1976 to 2020,” by Steve Kornacki
A comprehensive look into how black voters became dominant in the Democratic nomination process.
The ongoing tension between outrage at the president's racist statements and worry that he's connecting with voters.
"'You know where she stands': Is Elizabeth Warren the one?” by Peter Hamby
A look at Warren as the Democrat with the clearest rationale for a 2020 run.
“Why isn’t Elizabeth Warren more popular in Massachusetts?” by Ella Nilsen
A very deep dive into the senator's favorable ratings back home, which have been cited by Democrats nervous about her overall electability.
Act Now on Climate, “Join the fight against climate change.” Jay Inslee is the only 2020 Democrat who has given his blessing to a super PAC. (Cory Booker has distanced himself from a super PAC that has trailed its fundraising goals.) In a roundabout way, this has made him the first Democrat to go negative against his rivals on TV, with an ad that promotes Inslee's climate plan, then notes how other candidates have not talked as much about climate.
“Democrats aren't making climate change the number one issue,” a narrator sighs, as pictures of Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders appear on-screen.
The ad instantly inspired a donor appeal from Bernie Sanders; on Monday night, his campaign texted supporters to warn that “one of our opponents' super PACs is running a 6-figure ad buy attacking Bernie.”
Which candidate do you think has the best chance of winning against Donald Trump? (Quinnipiac, 579 Democrats)
Joe Biden — 51 (+9)
Bernie Sanders — 10% (-3)
Kamala Harris — 8% (-6)
Elizabeth Warren — 8% (-1)
Cory Booker — 1% (+0)
Pete Buttigieg — 1% (+0)
John Delaney — 1% (+1)
It's the defining question of the Democratic Party — who seems like he or she has the best chance to beat Trump? Every Democratic candidate, in every poll, has an “electability” number lower than his or her overall support. The exception, as it's been since April, is Joe Biden. Here, a majority of Democrats see him as most electable, in a recovery from when memories of his first debate performance were fresh. Nationally, 34 percent prefer Biden as the nominee, so viewed one way, he loses a third of the voters who believe he's their strongest nominee. Meanwhile, one-third of voters prefer Biden but do not think he has the “best policy ideas” in the race; for the second time in Quinnipiac's polling, the winner on that count is Elizabeth Warren.
ON THE TRAIL
DEARBORN, Mich. — The very first question to Jay Inslee at the Islamic Center of Detroit was one that Democrats are never happy to be asked. What would the governor of Washington say to people who wanted to punish participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and cut off American support for Israel?
“It's difficult sometimes to defend the rights of someone who is saying something you disagree with, but it's the nature of freedom of speech,” Inslee said. “And I believe freedom of religion and freedom of speech are very, very important American values. I'm not a member of that movement. I know in my mind I don't agree with everything in that movement. But the freedom of speech has to be defended in the United States.”
In less than 60 seconds, Inslee navigated around an issue with little political upside. For 30 minutes, he enjoyed a friendly back-and-forth with local Muslim leaders, whose political gripes were directed at the president or at Democrats whom they didn't see fighting Trump as hard as he was. Inslee took every chance to portray himself as an ally.
“We saw George Bush try to whip up the flames to get his war in Iraq, and it was in part based on some of the sentiment that leads us to be here today,” he said. “I was a very vocal opponent against the war in Iraq, and I believe now we need to be very very adamant to not allow another president beating the drums of war to fan the flames of hatred and lead in another unnecessary war with Iran.”
Inslee, who will be onstage Wednesday but has not yet qualified for future debates, is one of relatively few candidates to visit a mosque in this cycle. The midterms were breakthrough elections for Muslims, with Democrats electing the first two female members of the faith in Congress — Minnesota's Ilhan Omar and Michigan's Rashida Tlaib. And since then, Tlaib's and Omar's criticism of Israel and America's relationship with the Jewish state has made other Democrats nervous, as Republicans argue that defending either congresswoman amounts to defending “anti-Semitism.”
In Dearborn, which is outside of Tlaib's district, Inslee treaded lightly. Asked about Trump's attacks on Tlaib (and the rest of the “Squad” of Democratic congresswomen), he focused immediately on how Republicans took Trump's side when he tweeted something that most people quickly saw as racist.
“I will express honest disagreement with Vice President Biden on this,” Inslee said. “He said that, you know, Trump's the problem. As soon as we get rid of Trump, all the Republicans of good faith will join us in singing 'Kumbaya.' I just I just think that's flat wrong. Trump is not the only problem. I think it is horrifically pathetic that almost without exception Republican officeholders have cowered in the shadow of Donald Trump.”
DEMS IN DISARRAY
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which romped through the 2018 midterms and beat its own fundraising records this year, has shed six top staffers after a slow-burning complaint about staff diversity caught fire this week. Politico's Heather Cagle, Laura Barrón-López and Jake Sherman have covered every turn in the story, which isn't over but already looks like a turning point in how the party looks at itself.
It all starts with Rep. Cheri Bustos (Ill.), one of the most junior members of Democratic leadership. Bustos arrived in the House in 2013 after a friendly Democratic gerrymander created a safe seat in northwest Illinois. Barack Obama won the new 17th district by 17 points; Bustos ousted the Republican incumbent by seven points. Her win margin grew in every subsequent election, and after 2016, when Donald Trump narrowly won her district, Bustos turned this into a story of how she'd cracked the party's rural problem.
“There’s people who think we’ve got to just work on the base — right? — and get people fired up, and that’s going to get us to 218 [seats in the House]. I don’t,” she told Politico's Michael Kruse in early 2017. “I don’t think that’s going to get us to 218. I think what’s going to get us to 218 is to understand these tough districts where we have not done well.”
Bustos became one of the midterms' media stars, stumping around the country for Democrats and expanding the candidate trainings she'd run in Illinois into a multistate program. If there was a story to be written about Democrats competing in “Trump Country,” where they'd been left for dead, Bustos was is in it. But the DCCC that won the midterms was led by a pair of Latinos — Rep. Ben Ray Luján and executive director Dan Sena. When the dust settled, Democrats won the House thanks to a stampede through the suburbs; there were fewer bright spots in rural areas and even two seat losses in rural Minnesota.
At the end of 2018, Bustos declared for DCCC chair and faced off against Washington Rep. Denny Heck, who had led the committee's recruitment efforts, and Washington Rep. Suzan DelBene, one of its strongest fundraisers. Bustos won 117 votes and the job; Heck and DelBene won a combined 115 votes. Key to Bustos's victory was that she planned to protect incumbents from primary challengers.
That led to the first controversies of her tenure. In March, the DCCC announced that consultants who worked with primary challengers would not get contracts to work with the DCCC, a policy that angry activists quickly named “the blacklist.” In May, Bustos was expected to help Rep. Daniel Lipinski (Ill.) raise money for his own reelection, even though Lipinski, one of just three antiabortion Democrats in the House, faced a 2020 rematch with a primary challenger backed by groups like Emily's List.
By June, the blacklist was in place but the fundraiser appearance was canceled. Weeks later, the conservative Washington Free Beacon reported on decade-old tweets by Tayhlor Coleman, a DCCC staffer, that made fun of LGBT people and Latinos; that did not stop Bustos from announcing Coleman as the head of DCCC minority outreach. When Latino Democrats protested, Coleman was demoted but kept on at the DCCC. It was a perfect storm, putting Congressional Black Caucus members who did not want to see a young operative ruined by old tweets against Congressional Hispanic Caucus members wondering what had happened to a committee so recently run by Latinos.
By Monday night, Bustos had parted with key staff and apologized. “We are taking the first steps toward putting the DCCC back on path to protect and expand our majority, with a staff that truly reflects the diversity of our Democratic caucus and our party,” she said in a statement. It was an ironic twist for a rising Democratic star who, during her run of positive media attention, decried what was usually called “identity politics.”
“There's been too much siloing going on among the constituencies,” she told Vice News last year. “You know, what is good for white working-class people is probably also good for African-American families or Latino families. But we don't have to talk about it in those terms.”
... about five hours until the first Detroit Democratic debate
... about twenty-nine hours until the second Detroit Democratic debate