The dust is now settling from the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 election, and both the conventional wisdom and objective metrics (poll numbers, bumps in Twitter followers, etc.) send a pretty clear message. If the Democratic National Committee decided who qualified for the next 2020 presidential debate at the end of this month based solely on who performed well in the first, the lineup would be something like this: Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Nobody else looked ready for prime time in last week’s debates in Miami.
Of course, that list leaves off some of the biggest names in the race (Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke) and some who deserve to be in that conversation based on their experience and talent (Jay Inslee, John Hickenlooper, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand). The DNC isn’t going to kick any of them out before the next debate, another 20-candidate, two-night affair July 30 and 31 in Detroit, which will have essentially the same selection criteria as the first. But after that, things get tougher, with increased requirements for candidates to show support in polling and grassroots fundraising. The Joe Bidens of the world aren’t going to have trouble showing 2 percent support in the polls anytime soon, but more nights like last Thursday could certainly knock him out of the front-runner role, and some candidates who once seemed like plausible contenders will find themselves shut out. Here’s what the underachievers in the first debate need to do during the second.
Biden: Former Vice President Joe Biden’s poll numbers and name recognition put him in another league than anybody else in this race, and he needs to start acting like it. He needs to be able to swat away attacks from his fellow Democrats (even skillfully delivered ones like Sen. Kamala Harris’ take-down of his record on desegregation) and go on offense against President Donald Trump. Stopping in mid-sentence to say, “Oh, looks like my time is up” is not what you do if you’re itching for a fight with the president. It’s what you do if you think you can coast through this election. And he needs to stop talking about his record, and not just because of its problematic elements. We’re pretty confident that Democratic primary voters are aware that he has a lot of experience. What they need to know is whether he’s got a vision for the future and answers to the problems of 2020.
Sanders: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders lit the internet on fire four years ago through a peculiar set of circumstances (a single, dominant, centrist front-runner and an unacknowledged rise in progressivism in the Democratic base) that do not exist today. But he is saying the same things in the same way that he was four years ago. The issues that energized his supporters in 2016 have been adopted by wide swaths of the Democratic field, and other things (like immigration and the treatment of migrants at the border) have since captured voters’ attention. If he’s just performing the same old Bernie show, voters are going to abandon him for candidates who deliver the same message in a fresher package.
O'Rourke: Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke got a Vanity Fair cover out of his navel-gazing journey to declaring for president, but on Thursday he sure didn’t live up to his assertion in that article that he was “just born to be in it.” Rather, he looked like someone who had just been awakened from a nap and was moderately surprised to find all these people asking him questions. He actually has some serious policy proposals on big issues like immigration and climate change; he needs to channel his inner Elizabeth Warren and let them fly.
The governors: From Jimmy Carter through George W. Bush, governors once dominated presidential elections, but no more. Witness two highly qualified candidates — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper — who have barely moved the needle in this race. The argument that governors know how to get things done hasn’t resonated in a while (it certainly didn’t for Martin O’Malley in 2016), perhaps because voters don’t see competence in good governance as an effective counter to the likes of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Messrs. Hickenlooper and Inslee need to wrap themselves in the existential issues of 2020, not their successes in Denver and Olympia. Mr. Hickenlooper has a strong record of innovation on preparing workers for a 21st century economy where automation may be an even bigger threat than globalization, and Mr. Inslee is staking his entire candidacy on the issue of climate change. Any time they spend talking about anything else is wasted.