8 big thoughts on CNN’s debate draw

Posted at 8:42 AM, Jul 19, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-19 10:42:22-04

The debate draw is over! We know which candidates go where — and with whom! — in the two-night 2020 debate extravaganza, set for July 30 and 31 in Detroit.

With the two stages locked in, I’ve got some thoughts — on the likeliest candidate confrontations, which candidates are happy with their draws (and which aren’t) and a few other things. They’re below!

1. Kamala Harris isn’t Joe Biden’s only problem

There’s lots of focus on the fact that the former vice president and the California senator who dunked on him over his record on busing in the first debate will be standing next to one another in the July 31 debate. But don’t overlook who’s on the other side of Biden — New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Booker made considerable political hay out of demanding an apology from Biden after the former veep seemingly praised the late segregationist Sen. James Eastland (D-Mississippi). Sandwiched between two candidates of color who have gone after him on the race issue is a very tough spot for Biden to be.

2. Clash of the liberals

To date, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have barely acknowledged each other’s presence in the race — the equivalent of a polite nod when you walk by someone on the street. And Warren apparently likes that dynamic just fine. “I am delighted,” she told CNN’s Annie Grayer about sharing the stage with her Senate colleague from Vermont. “Bernie and I have been friends for a long, long time.” Here’s the thing: Warren and Sanders are going for the same chunk — avowed liberals — in this race. And, of late, Warren is winning that fight. So Sanders can’t keep playing nice forever. Standing next to one another in the July 30 debate seems to set the stage for the first real battle between the two liberal titans.

3. Will Beto go after Buttigieg?

Cast your mind back to early 2019. Beto O’Rourke was the “it” candidate of the 2020 race — a status reflected by his solid (if not spectacular) polling and his fundraising strength (he raised $6 million on his first day in the race). Then, suddenly, he lost his mojo. Or more accurately, watched as South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg swiped it right out from under him. Since then, the two men have been on opposite paths — Buttigieg soaring to the cusp of the top tier, Beto hanging on in the race by his fingernails. In the July 30 debate, O’Rourke and Buttigieg will be only three podiums away from each other; that proximity might make it irresistible for Beto to try to reclaim the “it boy” mantle.

4. A moderate opening on night one

All of the attention in the July 30 debate has — and will — focus on Sanders and Warren. But there’s another storyline in that debate that springs from the two most prominent liberals in the party standing center stage: Who will emerge as the moderate, centrist voice that raises questions about what their proposals will cost and if the liberal solution is always the right one? Buttigieg seems like the likeliest option, but there’s a slew of other centrists on the stage in that first debate night too. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar could use a moment to shine light on her pragmatic politics. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, who is appearing in his first debate, might also be ripe for a moment to challenge liberal orthodoxy.

5. Andrew Yang is already a winner

According to the Real Clear Politics average of national polling, businessman Andrew Yang is averaging 1.4% support. And yet, thanks to the draw, Yang will be standing right next to Harris — just off center stage — in the July 31 debate. That means he will be on camera a whole lot — whether he’s speaking or not — and is more likely to be able to get the moderators’ attention in contentious conversations. Yang needs that boost, since in the first set of debates he barely spoke at all. I continue to believe his outsider appeal and off-beat personality could translate to a bit of a bump for Yang, but he needs to actually show up for this debate.

6. Keep an eye on Bennet

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet had a sneakily effective first debate — particularly in presenting himself as an alternative to people who aren’t sold on Biden. Bennet hit the former vice president for cutting deals with Republicans that hurt Democrats, which is a line of attack that a) works and b) he is a very good messenger to deliver. Bennet got into the July 31 debate with Biden, which is good for him. But he’ll be relegated to the last podium stage left, which might make it tougher for him to get into the conversations readily.

7. WWMWD (What Will Marianne Williamson Do)

Admit it: You couldn’t look away from Williamson, the spiritual guru and best-selling author, during the first debate. Whether it was dismissing the importance of policy in beating Donald Trump or promising to meet the President on the field and best him with love, Williamson was utterly watchable. Given that this is — probably — the last debate she’s going to appear in, what does Williamson have for an encore? I don’t know. But I am excited about it.

8. Hail Mary time

After this debate, the Democratic National Committee is raising the bar to qualify for the September debate. Candidates must secure 130,000 donors and average 2% in three qualifying polls. That will be a heavy lift not just for Williamson, but for several other candidates seen at one point or another as having a real chance at being the nominee. That includes Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) and Klobuchar, as well as Bullock and Bennet. What the looming qualification challenges mean for these candidates is that they NEED to make something happen in this debate or run the risk of being left behind as the 2020 campaign grinds on. That desperation should create an environment in which these candidates are likely to take a VERY big swing at one of the frontrunners in hopes of landing.