I think pundits are right that these two debates will not affect the standing of the candidates in the race overall. I mean, when the frontrunner, Joe Biden, is considered one of the winners by virtue of not screwing up, you have to figure that the debates aren’t likely to move the needle too much.
But, where these debates could have an impact are with the lower tier candidates. Did anybody have enough of a moment to ensure they’ll get the donors and the polls so that they can appear on stage in September?
The candidates who will appear on stage in September, as of today, are: Biden, Warren, Sanders, Harris, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, and Booker. I think the debates helped Yang, Gabbard, Bullock and Castro enough to make the next cut. I want to see more of Gillibrand, Klobuchar and Inslee, but I’m not sure they were helped.
Booker was one of the candidates who might see a big rise after last night. He’s already made the cut, but I can see him moving up to the middle tier with Buttigieg and O’Rourke because of his debate performance.
I think there will be some candidates drop out by September 12-13. Top candidates for dropping out: Bennet, Hickenlooper, DeBlasio, Ryan. I think Williamson, Bullock, and Delaney try to hang on, even if they don’t make the next event.
What about the candidates who haven’t been in a debate yet? Gravel, Moulton, Sestak, Messam, Steyer. Who knows? Why are they even in the race to begin with?
A couple of words on the oft-repeated refrain about how the moderators were using right wing/Republican talking points. I think it’s true that the moderators of both events were coming at the candidates from a right of center point of view. I don’t necessarily buy the pushback that these candidates are going to have deal with this point of view in the general election, so they’re really just helping them get ready. The networks and moderators aren’t playing it straight, necessarily, but this is a product of the politics of the moment. Mainstream media outlets try too hard to seem to be even handed, that they fall into false equivalence. I think that’s what’s going on here.
I think one good example is in the healthcare debate. The moderators want to draw out the differences between the moderates and progressives in their plans. One of the questions they used to do that was about trying to gotcha the progressives about a middle class tax hike. They tried really hard to get Sanders or Warren to say, yes, the taxes go up. But those candidates haven’t hidden that fact, they just point out that the plan means less out of pocket for the middle class. Yes, taxes go up, but premiums and deductibles go down. It’s a wash they say. And they tried to explain it that way, but the moderators were stuck on the framing of a tax increase. And tax increase is the Republican way of tearing down the Medicare for All plan. If the moderators want to really go at the differences between the Democrats’ plans, go at the overall cost. Ask about how much coverage they’ll add and how quickly. Ask about the transition time from now to then. Ask about the role of private insurance (which they did a little). But, no, the moderators went with the Republican attack on the programs. It was lazy and, yes, right wing in its point of view.
By the same token, the candidates are going to have to deal with right wing attacks and it’s fair to judge how they handle those attacks. I think a better way to deal with the moderators penchant for using right wing attacks in their questions is not to accept the framing of the question. Instead of crying foul for a right wing talking point, say, “I don’t accept the framing of your question,” or “you’re asking the wrong question” and then restate the question with a more even handed view point. In my example above, you might say, “focusing only on the tax part of the equation is misleading. You’re not taking into account the fact that deductibles, premiums and out of pocket expenses will be non-existent. You’re not considering the improvement in benefits and coverage in my plan, etc.” And if they come back to say, but what about the taxes, you keep going at the misleading nature of the question, or don’t accept the framing of the question.