Beginning Wednesday night, 20 of the Democratic contenders for president square off in what will likely prove the most unwieldy debate in modern American history. The sheer number of candidates added to a 10-by-10 format — 10 candidates debate Wednesday and 10 others on Thursday — have virtually guaranteed its awkwardness. Looking forward to hearing Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge former Vice President Joe Biden? Or how New Jersey’s Cory Booker squaring off against California’s Kamala Harris for U.S. Senate rising star bragging rights? Sorry, not going to happen. They are on different nights. Organizers wanted to be exclusive but not too exclusive, so here we are. Just feel sorry for the four Democrats (Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton; Miramar, Fla., Mayor Wayne Messam; and former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel) who didn’t even make the cut.
Still, there is something to be said for having a shared stage at this early juncture of the 2020 race. Critics have suggested the candidate-heavy, follow-up question-light format will produce something more akin to back-to-back press conferences than a genuine debate. But that’s really not such a bad thing with a field as crowded as this. Americans could use a little side-by-side comparison and some first impressions. Will there be a lot of sound bites, rehearsed zingers, surprise new policy claims? Probably. But so what? If voters aren’t inured to the tactics of the politicians who stand behind the podium at this point, they might never be. In the age of Trumpian braggadocio and alternative facts, old-school one-upmanship might even seem quaint. It will surely seem modest.
What should viewers be looking for? Strangely, in the internet age, the aftermath of online reactions on social media venues like Twitter and YouTube video clips may have a more lasting impact on polls and/or fundraising than the overall performance of any candidate. So you might not really know what to make of it all for several days. But here are five big questions the debates might begin to answer:
1. Can Mr. Biden have a gaffe-free evening? Let’s face it, he’s a little prone to foot-in-mouth disease. He is still the lead horse in this race, but he needs to demonstrate that his flip-flop on federal funding for abortion, his conjuring of the ghosts of Senate segregationists past and other recent faux pas aren’t going to be a weekly (or, shudder, daily) exercise. There’s a lot of goodwill surrounding the former vice president from his association with Barack Obama, but he’s also turning 77 in November. The average age of U.S. presidents when they take office is 55. If he’s going to stay the frontrunner, he needs to be sharp and forward-looking.
2. Are the Democrats headed left or is there some power remaining in the old Bill Clinton “Third Way” moderate mantra? If it’s the former, expect Sens. Warren, Bernie Sanders and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to get a lot of attention, but if it’s the latter, there are some folks who might be headed for a boost like Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, Senator Booker or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
3. What about electability? Face it, the 2020 election is destined to be a referendum on Donald Trump. So that’s bound to loom on the minds of Democratic voters who will be looking for someone to square off against the incumbent a year from now. Does that look like someone who can be equally loud and forceful, or is the best alternative someone cool, calm and articulate who doesn’t flinch over an unwanted nickname? There may not be a stand-in for President Trump these next two nights but his presence will be felt bigly. There’s talk he may even tweet a real-time response. Who can distinguish themselves in responding to the presidential response?
4. Are there some unknowns who might actually emerge from the scrum? We know well former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who brings a businessman’s pragmatism to politics. If climate change is top of your agenda, you may swoon over Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has structured his campaign around the issue.
5. What issues will end up having legs? It’s safe to say that the most controversial — the Green New Deal, Medicare For All and student loan forgiveness — will get their moments. So will Iran, foreign trade and tariff wars, election meddling, whether the House should impeach Mr. Trump and capitalism versus democratic socialism. Or will issues not matter at all? Democrats run the gamut on the substantiveness scale, from Senator Warren (whose campaign literally has “She has a plan for that” t-shirts) to candidates like Mr. Buttigieg and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (whose campaigns seem based on a general vibe of newness).