With 225 days until the Iowa caucuses and a record number of Democratic candidates, the 2020 election is already in full swing. Every Sunday, I will deliver to your inbox the 5 BIG storylines you need to know to understand the upcoming week on the campaign trail. And they’re ranked — so the No. 1 story is the most important of the coming week. This week, all the storylines are debate-focused as we are just 3 days away from the first debates of the 2020 campaign on Wednesday and Thursday in Miami.
Subscribe to The Point newsletter to get this Sunday update delivered to your inbox, along with political analysis every weekday!
5. Yang-mentum: I mentioned in last week’s Sunday newsletter that I thought technocrat/businessman Andrew Yang was the dark horse to watch in these first debates. I only feel that way more strongly today.
Why? Yang is an outsider (he’s never run for office before) and has built a large online support base thanks to his willingness to think differently — some would say naively — about how to solve the nation’s problems. His biggest proposal — universal basic income, which would pay every American $1,000 per month starting at age 18, to address economic inequality — should resonate with Democratic voters who know nothing about him today.
And, Yang got a lucky draw — being in the 2nd night debate with most of the major players including former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. That gives Yang an opportunity to a) look the part of a president and b) take on the people he needs to pass more directly.
4. Can Booker find another foil?: New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker had one of the best weeks of his campaign last week as he got into a back and forth with Biden over comments the former vice president made in which he seemed to paint his work with a former segregationist senator — James Eastland — in a positive light.
Booker got the better of Biden and, for a few days at least, was very much in the news — a reminder of how helpful it is to fight with the frontrunner. Booker won’t have Biden on stage with him on Wednesday night, which will pose a challenge.
The most prominent candidate on stage is Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a prominent liberal who offers none of the openings for Booker that Biden does. Does Booker attack an absent Biden? Find someone on the stage to go after? Or just play nice?
3. Loser(s) leave town match: There’s a great concept in professional wrestling known as the “loser leaves town match” which means basically what you think it means: The loser of the match has to, uh, leave town. (SPOILER ALERT!!! Pro wrestling is fake — so the loser isn’t actually forced to pick up their things and leave — just to disappear for a week or two from the wrestling card.)
That’s what these debates feel like to me for a bunch of candidates who either haven’t performed up to expectations or who might be running low on cash. (Those are often concentric circles.) If you’re in that group and you don’t find a way to stand out in the debates this week, it could be lights out.
Who’s in that group: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
2. All eyes on Kamala: Fate has conspired to give the California senator a massive opportunity on Thursday night. She’ll be on stage with virtually every one of her main competitors for the nomination — at least at the moment. She’ll be one of only three women on stage (Gillibrand and spiritual counselor Marianne Williamson will be the others). Harris will be the only person of color — she’s Indian American and African American — on the debate stage.
In short: She will stand out right from the jump, which will put a spotlight on her. That should be a good thing for Harris, whose prosecutorial background and her recency as a candidate — she was elected to the Senate in 2016 — should make her an able debater.
Since a major bump around the announcement of her candidacy, Harris has largely flown under the radar — hanging out at the back of the lead pack. She and her team are right to see Thursday’s debate as a chance to begin to (re)assert her role in the race.
1. Biden’s bristliness tested: One thing that’s become quite clear during the early days of the 2020 campaign is that Biden does not like to have his motivations questioned.
When people raised concerns about his inappropriateness with women, Biden initially refused to apologize at all — insisting that his motives were pure. Last week, when his comments about Eastland and other segregationist senators drew scrutiny, Biden — again — reacted poorly, arguing that not only would he not apologize but also that Booker should apologize for questioning him. Uh, what?
Here’s the thing: When you are the frontrunner, people come after you. Every frontrunner ever has had to endure it. And whether you think the attacks are fair or undeserved doesn’t matter at all. You have to show poise and equanimity in the face of pressure because you can be damn well certain that Trump isn’t planning to back off attacking whoever Democrats nominate.