NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, July 29th, 2019

What might we see at the second round of Democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan?

This week, twen­ty Democ­rats will once again face each oth­er in two con­sec­u­tive nights of debates. The stakes are high for all the can­di­dates, as this is like­ly the last oppor­tu­ni­ty the major­i­ty of them will have to make a good impres­sion on the elec­torate; the polling and dona­tion require­ments for the third debate – set to take place in mid-Sep­tem­ber – are sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er than the first two rounds of debates, pro­hib­i­tive­ly high for the many can­di­dates polling at 1% or under.

The debates, host­ed by CNN, will take place in the Fox The­atre at the cen­ter of Detroit at 8 PM East­ern (5 PM Pacif­ic) on the nights of July 30th and 31st.

So, what should view­ers expect from this round of debates?

First­ly, there will be a lot of sim­i­lar­i­ty to the first round of debates, on June 26th and 27th. The cast of char­ac­ters lin­ing up to impress the Amer­i­can pub­lic is the exact same as last time, with the very minor sub­sti­tu­tion on the first night of Gov­er­nor Steve Bul­lock, replac­ing Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Eric Swal­well of Cal­i­for­nia, who has already dropped out of the race (and will run for reelec­tion to the House.)

Like last time, the debates are like­ly to be very noisy. With ten can­di­dates on stage per night – at least two thirds of whom are high­ly like­ly to be exclud­ed from the Sep­tem­ber debate – there will be a real scrap for each per­son to make his or her pitch, to get in a great sound-bite, or land a good punch on one of the front-run­ners – any­thing to make sure they get noticed and, hope­ful­ly, gain sup­port.

The risk of sim­ply fad­ing into the back­ground is very real; in the last debate Andrew Yang (one of the least-expe­ri­enced can­di­dates) man­aged to get less than six hun­dred words in edge­ways, dis­ap­point­ing many who want­ed to hear about one of the most rad­i­cal eco­nom­ic plat­forms in mod­ern pol­i­tics.

Look­ing at the night-by-night line up, it seems clear that one thing to expect from the debates is some­thing that cable tele­vi­sion loves – con­flict. CNN have placed can­di­dates with each oth­er in a way that seems guar­an­teed – espe­cial­ly with the mod­er­a­tors stir­ring the pot – to pro­duce clash­es of pol­i­cy and per­son­al­i­ty.

On Tues­day night, two sep­a­rate con­flicts are like­ly to erupt.

First­ly, the two lions of the Amer­i­can left, Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren, have a chance to com­pete direct­ly with one anoth­er for the sup­port of pro­gres­sive Democ­rats (in June, they were billed on dif­fer­ent nights).

Sanders and War­ren reput­ed­ly agreed to a “non-aggres­sion pact” ear­ly in the cam­paign to avoid frac­tur­ing the pro­gres­sive wing of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, but there are hints that the “pact” may be under strain – Sanders’ cam­paign have tweet­ed anti-estab­lish­ment mes­sages that have been inter­pret­ed as a sub­tle dig at Warren’s warmer rela­tions with pow­er­ful fig­ures in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty.

Tues­day night will reveal if the pro­gres­sive pact has frac­tured. CNN’s mod­er­a­tors will cer­tain­ly be push­ing for the two to be at each oth­ers’ throats, since cable news often views con­flict as a bet­ter dri­ver of view­er­ship than con­tent.

How­ev­er, such a intra-pro­gres­sive bat­tle is by no means a cer­tain­ty.

Sanders’ sup­port­ers have always been more aggres­sive and crit­i­cal of his rivals than the man him­self. Giv­en the choice, Bernie may well choose to avoid crit­i­ciz­ing War­ren – just as he chose to avoid crit­i­ciz­ing Hillary Clin­ton over her email scan­dal in 2016 – even if some pun­dits believe it could cost him.

For her part, War­ren has a great deal of momen­tum, where­as Sanders has stalled in the polls. A strate­gic view of the sit­u­a­tion would call for her to con­tin­ue her cor­dial rela­tions with Sanders and slow­ly sap his sup­port.

To attack Sanders – who is viewed as a hero by many pro­gres­sives (includ­ing her own sup­port­ers) for his quixot­ic 2016 cam­paign – would be a tac­ti­cal blun­der, incit­ing Sanders’ fero­cious­ly loy­al base against her need­less­ly.

The oth­er clash like­ly to hap­pen is between two rel­a­tive new­com­ers to nation­al pol­i­tics: May­or Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, and for­mer Texas rep­re­sen­ta­tive Beto O’Rourke. Both men are seek­ing to fill out a par­tic­u­lar niche in this pri­ma­ry cam­paign: both are young white men, new to the nation­al polit­i­cal stage, who hope to appeal to both pro­gres­sives and par­tial pro­gres­sives with­in the par­ty.

The prob­lem for O’Rourke and Buttigieg is that there is only a small amount of room in the elec­torate for this kind of can­di­date, and not enough room for two of them. The kind of sup­port­ers both men attract most – young, white and bicon­cep­tu­al – make up a tiny part of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­torate, only 12.4% accord­ing to ana­lyst Nate Sil­ver. While that might be big enough to form the base of a win­ning coali­tion, it isn’t enough to share with anoth­er can­di­date (by com­par­i­son, the pro­gres­sives over whom War­ren and Sanders are com­pet­ing make up between a quar­ter and a third of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­torate).

The stakes are par­tic­u­lar­ly high for O’Rourke; the “Beto Boom” of his ear­ly cam­paign has gone bust at an alarm­ing pace, and he has watched Pete Buttigieg’s cam­paign eat into his own sup­port. That’s got to sting Beto on a per­son­al lev­el as well as a polit­i­cal one, and may increase the like­li­hood of a clash.

How­ev­er, the biggest, most inevitable fight won’t come until the sec­ond night.

The biggest dra­ma of the June debates came when Sen­a­tor Kamala Har­ris elo­quent­ly dis­sect­ed Joe Biden’s record on deseg­re­ga­tion – point­ing express­ly to his recent remarks about big­ot­ed U.S. sen­a­tors and his stance on school bus­ing in the 1970s – leav­ing the for­mer-Vice Pres­i­dent to waf­fle his way through a thin and unim­pres­sive defense. He round­ed of a ram­bling response with poten­tial­ly sym­bol­ic words: “Any­way, my time is up. I’m sor­ry.”

In Wednes­day night’s debate, a high­ly-charged rematch is inevitable: After her suc­cess­ful assault on Biden, Har­ris saw her polling num­bers rock­et up; sens­ing a chance to up his own poll num­bers, New Jer­sey Sen­a­tor Cory Book­er has sig­naled that he will also con­front Biden on mass incar­cer­a­tion; for his part, Biden has told sup­port­ers that, “I’m not going to be so polite this time.

The sec­ond night of the debate includes every non-white can­di­date in the field (Har­ris, Book­er, Tul­si Gab­bard, Julián Cas­tro, and Andrew Yang), so the inevitable argu­ment over race could, this time, turn into an all-against-one brawl.

This could be exac­er­bat­ed by the pres­ence of Bill de Bla­sio and Kirsten Gilli­brand, nei­ther of whom are afraid to make pow­er­ful ene­mies.

How­ev­er, the debates will not whol­ly be defined by the can­di­dates, as much as they prob­a­bly would like to think so.

The loca­tion of the debates could be a key fac­tor in the kinds of issues raised. Detroit is a city that has had, to say the least, a rough time of it in the past few years. Pover­ty, eco­nom­ic malaise, vio­lent crime, polit­i­cal mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion have all blight­ed the city for decades.

More­over, in 2016 the State of Michi­gan was one of the for­mer­ly Demo­c­ra­t­ic Great Lakes states that tipped the Elec­toral Col­lege for Don­ald Trump.

Michi­gan is a micro­cosm for many of the chal­lenges Democ­rats face in 2020, and CNN’s mod­er­a­tors will be keen to press the can­di­dates on those chal­lenges.

The top­ics addressed at the debate might not only be influ­enced by the loca­tion. The Sun­rise Move­ment, a coali­tion of envi­ron­men­tal activists, plans to ral­ly thou­sands of pro­test­ers to Detroit to demand that the can­di­dates address the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis. The pro­test­ers have been demand­ing a cli­mate-focused debate for months, and CNN would be excru­ci­at­ing­ly out of touch if its mod­er­a­tors failed to push cli­mate change as an issue in the debate.

Of course, all of this is mere­ly spec­u­la­tion.

The only way to real­ly know what hap­pens is to watch the debates!

They can be viewed on CNN and streamed for free through CNN’s web­site and apps. Please also join us here on the Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate for our live cov­er­age, as we will be break­ing down the play-by-play as we watch along with you.

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