Democratic Debate Preview

Next Tuesday, we will finally get some degree of parity in the world of televised presidential debates, as the Democrats come together for the first time to make their case to the American public. The Republicans have already held two debates and will hold their third later this month. The Democratic National Committee decided to restrict the number of debates held, which has left the field open to the Republicans for two months now. This decision has been hotly debated, mostly by Democrats not named "Hillary Clinton" (who make the case that the debate schedule was shortened to give Hillary an easier time of it). But whatever you think of the decision, we're finally about to see all the Democratic candidates on one stage.

As of this writing, the number of Democrats who will be on that stage is still somewhat up in the air. Will there be five candidates? Six? Seven? We'll just have to wait and see, folks. The biggest unanswered question is whether Vice President Joe Biden will decide to throw his hat in the ring or not. Washington pundits have been obsessing over this question ever since Maureen Dowd wrote a column about it a few months ago (with a heart-wrenching personal story from the deathbed of Beau Biden, Joe's son). Biden himself has been teasing the possibility of a run, but so far has failed to commit. He may even (if some reports are to be believed) wait until after the first debate is held to make up his mind. This would be an incredibly late entry, to state the obvious.

Biden is in an interesting position, because even without announcing his bid, the polling companies have all put his name into their lists of questions, which has resulted in Biden already garnering enough support to be in a comfortable third place, in a seven-way race. That's not bad, for a man not even running. But for the purposes of this discussion, we're going to assume Biden will not be on the stage next Tuesday night. The rules have been tossed out the window, and Biden will be welcome on the stage even if he announces earlier that day, so we may have to wait until the last minute to see whether he'll be there or not, but until he commits, we're going to assume he won't be.

This leaves six candidates, only two of whom have any support to speak of at all among Democratic voters. The other four will all desperately be trying to "pull a Carly" in the first debate, and get noticed by a stellar performance. If you're unsure of who these four are, you're not alone -- mostly they'll be looking to introduce themselves to the voters for the first time. They are: Jim Webb, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O'Malley, and Lawrence Lessig. Lessig seems to be running a political science experiment more than a presidential campaign, as he swears he's only running to pass a reform agenda, and once this is passed, he will immediately resign the presidency. "Quixotic" barely begins to cover the bizarre notion that America would elect someone who promised to quit after getting one thing done. I'm not even sure the debate folks have invited Lessig to participate, to tell you the truth.

The other three candidates are all polling around one percent or less -- Webb, Chafee, and O'Malley -- and they all seem to be more or less running to be Hillary's veep choice. O'Malley truly thought he was going to be the progressive alternative to Clinton, and he saw himself nipping at her heels from second place. Unfortunately for him, it is Bernie Sanders who successfully implemented this plan. O'Malley has been reduced to an afterthought, at least so far. I would look for him to try the hardest to have a breakout performance during the debate, but at the same time I don't see much possibility of that actually happening.

The first debate will be crucial for both of the two frontrunners in the race, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But my guess is that there won't be a whole lot of personality-driven fireworks between these two. I say this for a variety of reasons. First, this isn't the Republican Party, and there will be no figure comparable to Donald Trump on the stage. The differences discussed will be on the level of policy, not personality. Both Clinton and Sanders -- for different reasons -- are running fairly low-key campaigns against each other, which is another big reason there won't be fireworks. Sanders brags that he's never run a negative campaign in his life, and he doesn't intend to start now. Clinton, on the other hand, is looking past the primaries to becoming the nominee, and she doesn't want to anger Bernie's supporters too much (in the hopes of picking up their support later).

Don't get me wrong -- that last sentence wasn't a prediction, instead merely an interpretation of how Clinton sees things right now. Clinton will never utter the word "inevitable," but that doesn't mean she doesn't believe in the concept. She sees a path to the nomination, and at the moment she has the polling to support that view. Sure, her numbers have fallen, but they're still sky-high when compared to (for instance) the state of the Republican race. Trump, at his peak, pulled in less than a third of Republican voters. Clinton has routinely pulled in over 40 percent. She's down from her highs of 60-70 percent, but she's still got a very comfortable lead in the polls. That could always change, of course -- but if it doesn't, she'll likely win the Democratic nomination in the end.

Clinton remembers what happened in 2008, when she lost to Barack Obama. She buried her resentment and frustration, and she then issued a call to her supporters to shift their passion to Obama. At the time, some predicted her supporters would ignore her call for party loyalty and start a movement to destroy Obama out of sheer spite. This movement even had a name: "Party Unity My Ass," or the "PUMAs." But despite a whole lot of hype (and a whole lot of bitter words from both sides), when the convention rolled around the PUMA phenomenon failed to materialize at all. Clinton had brought her supporters to Obama's side, and the rest is history.

Hillary hasn't forgotten any of this, of that you can be sure. She will expect the same selflessness from Bernie Sanders if she defeats him. She'll be looking to Bernie to convince his base to support her in the general election. Mindful of this future scenario, Clinton will likely refrain from any harsh attacks against Sanders next Tuesday night. She knows she's already on some pretty thin ice with the progressive wing of the party, and she'll probably be looking to avoid any snarky comments which would make things worse.

Bernie, on the other hand, is convinced of the righteousness of his policy positions and will turn any "Wouldn't you like to beat up Clinton a little bit?" style questions immediately back to policy differences he has with her. Any disagreements they have on stage will likely be substantive ones, with Bernie explaining why his position is not radical but rather common sense, and Hillary making the case for gradual and incremental change that could actually be accomplished as opposed to some pie-in-the-sky idea that will never make it through Congress. To give just one example, Bernie will state he's for raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, while Clinton will patiently explain she thinks 10 or 12 bucks is a more reachable target for now.

Sanders may face the strongest attacks not from Clinton (or the moderators) but rather from the four candidates who currently haven't even registered with the public. They'll feel a lot more free to call Bernie an extremist than Clinton will be, to put this another way. From their perspective, they've got nothing to lose by doing so. If Martin O'Malley really is doing nothing but auditioning for Hillary's running mate, then it makes perfect sense for him to rip into Bernie right now (so Hillary doesn't even have to). O'Malley likely won't try to flank Bernie from the left (which is pretty hard to do on most issues), but rather from the center -- attempting to draw from Bernie's progressive ideals, but at the same time grounding them in Clintonian pragmatism.

The one issue that everyone on stage will be able to hit Sanders on from the left will be gun control. Sanders comes from a rural state with plenty of hunters, and he's had a rather ambivalent record on gun control, sometimes voting for it and sometimes voting against it. So look for Clinton and all the others to point out their own liberal credentials on the issue.

Most of the political attacks we'll see next Tuesday will likely be made against Republicans. There'll be plenty of Trump-taunting and Bush-baiting, that's almost a given. All the Democratic candidates will be wanting to paint a very stark picture of the differences between them and what is going on in the other party, and this year's Republican bunch has made that as easy as falling off a log, really. For instance, pretty much any Democrat could point out: "I'd like to see, in the next Republican debate, the moderator ask all the candidates if they would give Donald Trump their full and enthusiastic support if he becomes their party's nominee." Or they could just read quotes about Trump from his fellow Republican candidates, to show the vicious nature of the Republican nominating contest right now.

Finally, I have one last prediction to make about the first Democratic presidential debate. The pundits will all treat it as if it is some gigantic story, in the most shocked tones they can manage, but it's just basic politics -- every Democratic candidate for president will attempt, at some point in the evening, to distance themselves from Barack Obama on one issue or another. The only one who might not be able to realistically do so is Joe Biden (should he attend), since he's been Obama's veep for his whole term. But it'll be in every other candidate's best interest to create some daylight between them and the sitting Democratic president. Again, this might sound shocking (and the pundits will tell you precisely how shocking they all consider it), but it really isn't.

Most Democratic voters think Barack Obama's done a pretty decent job, given the problems he inherited on his first day in office. Most support the majority of Obama's agenda. I would even guess that most Democratic voters consider Obama's presidency to be exactly the type of "transformative" presidency he had publicly hoped for, before his term in office started. But while most Democratic voters have supported most of what Obama has done, pretty much all Democratic voters have a few issues where Obama has left them unsatisfied (or worse). Obama has disappointed many Democrats, on a wide variety of issues. This makes it fairly easy for the Democrats running to point out how they'd do things differently, should they become his successor. For the most part, this will be presented as "Obama didn't go far enough, I will finish the job" types of statements.

The most obvious issue that the Democratic candidates will break from Obama on during the debate is the just-finalized Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal. Already the two major candidates have said they can't support the deal as written, meaning it'll be an enticing issue next Tuesday for the moderators to raise. Perhaps one of the minor candidates will state their support of the deal, but it's more likely that everyone will denounce it in unison. Free trade has always been a contentious issue among Democrats, driven by corporations eager to make money but largely distrusted (or hated, even) by rank-and-file voters.

What will the effect of the first Democratic debate have among the public? That's hard to say. It will be the first time many voters tune in to what's going on in the Democratic race (since the Republican race has been so much more entertaining for the media to cover). It'll be the first time Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will get to speak, unfiltered, to millions of Americans. Anything could happen as a result. Clinton might boost her support by finally getting to talk about subjects that don't have anything to do with how she uses email. Sanders might see a wave of support as voters across the country hear what he has to say about his agenda, and those same voters are astonished that they agree with Bernie -- and surprised that he's not the caricature clown or buffoon the media has desperately been trying to paint him as. "Bernie makes a lot of sense," might be the commonest reaction to the first debate, in fact. As for the others, well, it's certainly true that one of them might have such a stellar debate performance that they start getting more than a single percent in the polling, following in Carly Fiorina's footsteps of proving that debates do, in fact, matter. I wouldn't bet on such an outcome, but then again it wouldn't surprise me all that much either. But however the public reacts, I do think it's a good thing that Democrats will finally have the opportunity to make their case to a large audience next Tuesday. I think the contrast between the policy prescriptions we'll hear about Tuesday and the knee-jerk Republican debate positions will be crystal clear, in fact. So no matter what the polls say afterwards about who "won" or "lost" the debate, I will be definitely be looking forward to next Tuesday night.


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