Monday, June 24, 2019

BTRTN: Miami Vise: Who's Gonna Get Squeezed in the Dem Debates?

The first Presidential debates of the 2020 campaign season will be held in Miami on Wednesday, June 26 and Thursday, June 27. Steve provides predictions about how the two nights will unfold.

The heat is on, baby. Don Johnson’s in a t-shirt and a turquoise blazer, the orange groves are flush, and the Dems are here in ground zero for global warming. It’s Miami, and it’s showtime! Enough of those CNN town hall love fests, Iowa corn-dog photo-ops, and cute candidate Instagram posts. We’re Democrats -- let’s get ready to grumble!
Everything changes this Wednesday and Thursday in Miami. That’s when the Democratic race finally breaks beyond the Axios addicts and MSNBC main-liners. That’s when we finally see the twenty leading candidates – ten each night -- together on a stage before a live audience on a big-three television network. 

For an event happening a full sixteen months before the 2020 election, these debates actually have startlingly high stakes.  We expect record-breaking viewership for an opening debate, as Democrats across the land are already at Def Con One in their urgent search for a sure winner, the candidate who is most certain to soundly thump Trump in November, 2020. 

It is that urgency that makes this debate so important. You can only make one first impression, and in a field of 23 candidates, it’s not wise to assume you will even get the chance to make a second. For that matter, it’s not a certainty that subsequent debates will be anywhere near the ratings bonanza that the opening two promise to be. Sure, it’s just the first debate – well over a year before election – but for some, it’s now or never. Some candidates are going to get squeezed hard in this Miami Vise.

Today, we discuss which candidates have the most at stake in Miami, and how these debates are likely to effect their campaigns. 

One factor that will weigh heavily on the outcome of these debates has already been decided: the Democratic National Committee has assigned ten candidates to each of the two nights through a process that was intended to ensure that the eight candidates faring best in the polls (that is, over two percent) would be divided evenly between the two evenings. The outcome, however, was that four of the five candidates who have had the most success to date – Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg – are all appearing on the same stage on Thursday night.  Of the five in the top tier, only Elizabeth Warren will be on the stage on Wednesday night… which is both good news and bad news for her. Sure, she’ll enjoy more focus as the lone Wednesday star, but she will not be in the mix for what is likely to be the sharper-elbowed Thursday night brawl of the top-tier.

In fact, the Wednesday night candidates are at a distinct disadvantage. It’s likely that viewership could actually be lower on the first night than on the second night, as all the news services make much of the fact that all the bold-faced candidates are on the second night. More problematic: all of these candidates want to be taking direct shots at front-runners Biden and Sanders, but it’s very tough to do that if they are not even on the stage to defend themselves.

So who wins and who loses? We’ll make some bold predictions.

Does Biden go for the avuncular or the jugular? 

The central drama of the two-night play is whether Joe Biden will live up to the expectations he has raised in decisively seizing the status of front-runner in the race. If Biden is judged to have had an exceptional evening, you can bet that MSNBC’s prime time line-up will start doing segments on potential running mates by the following Monday. Biden has big lead in the polls, and if he does well on the debate stage, there will be a yearning to coronate, coalesce, unify, and get on with the business of beating Trump. But the odds of that actually happening are slim.

Biden has a deep well of support in the party, but polling data indicates that his early preference numbers are soft, and largely a reflection of name awareness. Moreover, it will be the first time that many voters have focused on Biden as a 76 year-old candidate, and his age will be accentuated by the relative youngsters who will surround him on the stage. Chastened by criticism of his touchy-feely style, Biden seemed to be trying to be more cautious, but his historic penchant for self-destructive gaffes has already begun to re-surface on the campaign trail.  

This will be the essential drama of the debates, and it is Biden’s Miami Vise. Will Biden attempt to play it safe and project the aspect of his personality that is wise, measured, cautious, above the fray, and presidential – and risk appearing to be low-T, saggy old Grandpa Faux Pas? Or will he bound onto the stage, bursting with sass and wreaking ‘tood, all in a calculated effort to show that he can still mix it up with the kids and has the moxy to take it to the Insulter-in-Chief next fall?

Biden’s performance will be further magnified by the fact that many of the candidates will be playing Biden Go Seek. It is the burden of being the front-runner: any number of competitors will seek to elevate their standing and stature by knocking Biden down. This means Biden will spend the evening taking incoming from all sides and on virtually any topic… from his handling of the Anita Hill hearings to his support of the 1994 Crime bill, from his vote in favor of the Iraqi war to the plagiarism that ended his 1988 campaign, from his very recent real-time triple axel flippity-floppity-flu on the Hyde amendment to his easy-to-misinterpret comment about working well with segregationist Senate colleagues. If Joe Biden were a ship, it would be named the Gaffe Spree.

To date, Biden has aimed his guns directly at Donald Trump, thereby attempting to rise above the partisan bickering of the lesser known candidates. But he will take withering assaults – if not from other candidates, then certainly from the broadcast journalists who have drawers full of “gotcha” questions ready for the big dog. Should he respond to these attacks, or attempt to dismiss it all off with a vague Papal wave? Come Thursday night, we’ll find out whether we are seeing Biden 1.0, 2.0, or some entirely new and buggy software release.

We suspect that Biden – typically – will try to split all the differences, attempting to project gravitas and thoughtful wisdom to one question, and rakish, youthful charm and energetic charisma to the next. One minute he will be projecting his salt-of-the-earth, gritty Pennsylvania roots, and the next moment he will try to define his identity by stapling himself directly to Barack Obama. One minute he will attempt to dismiss a direct attack with the back of his hand, the next minute he will go full machismo by taking it right back at some unknown Congressman who wanted to score debate points at his expense. This Sybil Strategy is dangerous. Yes, Biden is familiar, but he is not necessarily known. More than anything, he must project authenticity and consistency....a sense of being completely comfortable in his own skin. 

The existential risk of being the front runner is that there is only one way to go… down. If Biden does not put forth a decisive show of command and strength in these debates, it throws a bucket of cold water on his momentum and inevitability. The reality is that cable networks get higher ratings if there is an exciting race, so they will reflexively gravitate to the shiny new objects that emerge over the two nights. The Democrats so crave a candidate that can beat Donald Trump that they would have no qualms about moving away from Biden if he is perceived to be damaged goods. It will open the doors for other candidates to get further consideration.

Our bet: Biden will get merely passing grades for a solid, workmanlike performance, but it is impossible to deliver a knock-out punch to 22 opponents. He will leave the door open for a fresh face to burst through. And there are a host of fresh faces chomping at the bit. 

Warren Factions: Elizabeth Ascending, Bernie Fading

Thursday night will also be a critically important night for Bernie Sanders, largely because the mojo in his segment of the party is swinging big time to Elizabeth Warren. Sanders and Warren are competing for the most progressive and ideological wing of the party, and that town ain’t big enough for the two of them. Both have a strong enough following to make it to the primaries, but they will face an epic confrontation in New Hampshire, which neighbors both candidates’ home states. At that point, one – or both – goes home.

It doesn’t appear that the shift in momentum to Warren is because of anything that Bernie is doing wrong… it’s mostly that the Massachusetts Senator has been on a roll. In a party that usually must chose between a policy wonk and a charismatic, Elizabeth Warren is threading the needle, presenting herself  as both. She lights up her town halls with fiery attacks on the elite, the entitled, and the establishment, and yet her simple but effective mantra (“I have a plan for that!”) demonstrates that she has the 3-D Excel spreadsheets to back up the soaring rhetoric.

Here’s what’s particularly problematic for Bernie: Elizabeth Warren is the only A-list star in the Wednesday night debate. So before Bernie even steps behind his podium on Thursday, Warren could well have stoked her own momentum with a killer performance against nine dwarfs. 

Bernie must also anticipate that he will be a target for the journalists who pose the debate questions – and he can expect to be aggressively questioned about whether his branding of “democratic socialism” is a gift to Donald Trump.  He will be put on the defensive, and other candidates will pounce.

Talk about a Miami Vise: to Bernie’s left is a younger, female, high-energy ascending rock star who has stolen his thunder as the party’s leftist policy wonk, and to Bernie’s right is another craggy over-75-year-old white guy who is crushing him in the early polls.  Below him are people like Eric Swalwell and Kristin Gillibrand, who are eager to score a solid punch on a vulnerable front runner. 

In the end, Bernie’s raspy, acerbic, stick-it-to-the-establishment outrage was perfect as a lone voice in the wilderness taking on the party’s anointed Hillary Clinton in 2016, but now it may just sound like a cranky, angry, alienating, risky old fart to a party that only wants to find a candidate who is certain to beat Donald Trump. Bernie has to figure out how to navigate this Miami Vise, or he is going to limp out of Florida with a hyooooooge problem. 

Our bet: Miami is the beginning of the end for Bernie. If Warren continues to close the polling gap with Sanders, she could be on a trajectory to a spot on the national ticket. 

The Not-So-Wild Card: Buttigieg May Steal the Show

People who are still pooh-poohing that a 37 year old gay mayor of a tiny city could be running for President need to come out from under their rock. Pete Buttigieg is not simply exceeding expectations, he is consistently and dramatically outperforming his Democratic rivals.  Wake up, Dems… Mayor Pete is the real deal. He is a category five phenomenon who has an uncanny ability to unfurl gracefully constructed paragraphs in real time on any topic that is thrown his way. If he wasn’t flustered on Rachel Maddow, Bill Maher, or Fox News, it’s hard to see why it would be any different on a debate stage.

It’s a strange thing to say about a guy who is half the age of both of the front-runners, but Buttigieg consistently comes across as the most mature, measured, and thoughtful person in the entire field. Other candidates talk about being unifiers. Buttigieg unifies.

A 37-year-old gay mayor of a tiny town who decides to run for President does not lack for chutzpah. Don’t be surprised if Buttigieg elegantly but deliberately goes after Biden, goading the front-runner into a direct exchange. Pete is not going to do this in a nasty or snarky way -- that would be off-brand -- but Buttigieg is shrewd, and knows that the best place for him to take polling points is directly from Biden. Mayor Pete would want nothing more than endless Youtube video loops of a pitched exchange between him and Biden.

On the campaign trail, Mayor Pete has gone after Biden on the age issue, which is definitely an edgy thing to do if you are a part of your very own oppressed and much-aggrieved minority. To be clear: Buttigieg is not saying Biden is not qualified because he is old, but because the “old normal” no longer works. Buttigieg believes that 2020 is a generational election, and that younger leadership is essential to see new solutions. But the message is clear… are we really going to beat their 73 year old with our 76 year old? It will be interesting to see how Biden handles it, because we can tell you right now, Joe… that fastball is coming at you, hard and inside.

Many Americans will be seeing Buttigieg for the first time on Thursday night, and you can fully expect that a large percentage will be as charmed by him as those who have followed him closely on cable news. The bet here is that while Biden’s performance is considered solid, Buttigieg is the next morning’s lead story. And that is a problem for…

Kamala Harris: Time to Get Moving

The Miami Vise facing Kamala Harris is that she has yet to live up to her apparent potential as a candidate. She is undoubtedly a powerful, serious person of great substance, but of the top tier candidates, she has yet to provide the clear, unique, and compelling rationale for her candidacy. She has staying power, is well-funded, and will make it to the primaries. But there are only two “new generation” candidates in the top tier… Harris and Buttigieg. If – as we anticipate – he is perceived to be the exciting newcomer in the debate, that is a serious blow to her desire to be the candidate of generational change. Harris needs to have a break-out performance, but she has not demonstrated her ability to accomplish this on the campaign trail or the cable news circuit. 

Still, we're betting that she will come out ahead for the evening. The networks love rising stars, and Harris has the poise, camera presence, and gravitas to impress.

The Vulnerables

The conventional wisdom is that there is “no downside to running for President.” That theory holds that a run is great for name recognition, visibility, and can set you up for a cabinet post or even the VP nod. 

However, it is hard to see how that theory is holding up for any of Kirsten Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, or Amy Klobuchar.  

Start with Gillibrand, who set her campaign off on the decidedly wrong foot by announcing her candidacy on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Hey, we love Colbert, but this is not the season for a Democrat to declare their desire to help America’s struggling and downtrodden from the glitzy interview couch of an A-List zillionaire comedic celebrity. Barely a blip in the polls, Gillibrand may emerge from this experience viewed as a far less serious player in the party than if she’d just sat on the sidelines. Gillibrand could well view these debates as do or die, and swing wildly for the fences with big new policy promises or very sharp attacks on front runners. It is possible that a candidate can salvage a flat-lining campaign with a single brilliant moment, but we haven’t seen anything resembling that from Gillibrand so far.

Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar were also expected to be much more formidable candidates than they have appeared to date. Neither has done well in the polls, neither has developed a powerful message, and neither has demonstrated an aptitude for fundraising.  Both will benefit from appearing on Wednesday night, and therefore not fighting for camera time with Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg, or Harris. You can count on a Lester Holt or Rachel Maddow to smack these two in the nose by asking them to explain their lackluster performance. The good news – and the bad news -- is that they have each had plenty of time and reason to ponder how to answer this question. Each needs a big night. Booker has far more capacity for the big charismatic moment than Klobuchar, and Booker is far more willing to deliver a hard punch at Biden than the reserved Minnesota Senator. Both could be gasping for oxygen by mid-July. 

It was not long ago that Beto O’Rourke was the great young white hope, the Bobby Kennedy doppelgänger who almost took down Ted Cruz in Texas. Then Pete Buttigieg showed up. O’Rourke has been wobbly since his campaign launch, and is not landing solid punches with his policy statements.  O’Rourke will benefit from the fact that he is on Wednesday night, where he may well be the second most recognizable figure after Elizabeth Warren. He also is well funded and therefore has staying power that others may not. Expect a great deal of energy and passion from Beto, and we suspect he will get a boost from a strong night.

Ain’t No Starting Us Now: Who is (fill in blank), and why is that Person Running for President?

Below the two tiers noted above are what we might call the total unknowns and the unloved knowns. The latter – Castro, de Blasio, Ryan, Swalwell, Hickenlooper – have a glimmer of recognition because they hold serious offices, spend way too much time on cable news programming, have a twin brother that makes them appear more ubiquitous than they really are, or have a weird, memorable name.

Bill de Blasio’s quixotic run for the White House has most people simply perplexed, as it feels like the Second Avenue Subway has been open for longer than he has been Mayor of New York. His mantra is that being Mayor of NYC is the “second toughest job in the country,” which serves only to raise the point that he should prove that he can do the second toughest job before he runs for what is actually the toughest job. 

If anyone in this group is able to significantly raise their stature, our bet is on Swalwell. This guy is on MSNBC so often he must sleep on a cot in their studio, and he is an appealing, youthful, telegenic presence. He just came out for impeachment, and he could make that his issue. Swalwell’s big advantage? He appears on Thursday night, with all the big names. He is smart and a policy wonk, so he might see his golden opportunity as being known as the guy who tripped up Biden.

And then there are a bunch of people you’ve never heard of: Yang, Bennet, Inslee, Delaney, Gabbard, Williamson. Their presence on the debate stage is the functional equivalent of a small advertiser placing a gigantic bet by running a single ad on the Superbowl. These people know that they have one chance and one chance only to elevate their non-existent stature. Look for these people to be heaving improvised explosive rhetorical devices at the front-runners, hoping that they score the direct hit that wounds a major candidate and ends up being shared fifty million times on Instagram.

Just for sport, we’ll bet that from this group, it is spiritual advisor and frequent Oprah guest Marianne Williamson gets the big “better than expected” seal of approval from cable networks. Again, a key factor is simple television presence: Williamson is a seasoned performer, and she – like Swalwell -- is appearing on the target-rich Thursday stage that includes Biden, Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg. 

In sum, here’s our scorecard:

Overall Winner:
Pete Buttigieg

Those who will be judged to have done very well and who will gain in the polls:

Those who will hold serve:

Those who will outperform expectations, but it won’t matter on the long run:

Those who need to make an impact but won't.

Those who will be declared “Losers:”
De Blasio

Cue that theme song, and let’s see Sonny Crockett in shades. It's must see tv, everybody. Game time, candidates. Take your podiums, and get ready for Miami Vise

Let's see who get squeezed. 

Steve will be back Friday with his post-debate scorecard on the winners, the losers, and the gaffers.

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