On July 31, the second night, he will be standing between New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Biden’s placement could be seen as high risk, high reward, in that it could help him regain footing he lost from the first debate, but it could also leave him open to more attacks on issue of race in an increasingly diverse party.
Booker and Harris, of course, have good reason to attack Biden. Biden continues to hold a strong advantage among black voters, which is perhaps the single most important bloc in a Democratic primary. Booker and Harris have made courting the black vote integral parts of their campaign. Harris took a chunk of Biden’s black support after her strong performance in the first debate, which shows black voters are not entirely sold on Biden.
For Harris and Booker, attacking Biden comes with its own risk: Biden could effectively deflect them and make it appear as if Booker and Harris are unfairly trying to take down the vice president to the first black president of the United States.
Most of the attention, of course, will be on Biden vs. Harris. Biden gets a second chance at debating Harris, who put him on the defensive in the first debate over his opposition to federally mandated desegregation busing in the 1970s.
Biden can use a debate against Harris to draw a contrast on their health care plans as well. Biden is ardently against Medicare for All and has put forth a plan that includes a public option instead. Harris has, at times, struggled to explain her health care position, though is in favor of Medicare for All.
Perhaps even more risky for Biden is a showdown with Booker. Biden and Booker engaged in a heated back-and-forth in June over Biden’s comments about being civil and working with segregationist senators. Booker called on Biden to apologize for the comments, and then Biden told Booker that he should apologize. Biden eventually apologized.
Booker has recently said that he felt “disrespected” in his back-and-forth with Biden. Booker has also slammed Biden for taking too long to take responsibility for his part in passing the 1994 crime bill.
Biden could prove to be a strong debater who brings people together if he is able to deal with Booker in a tactful way. On the other hand, Biden could once more see himself on the wrong side of a debate with a black candidate on issues of race.
Biden may find himself having to defend President Barack Obama’s administration when it comes to illegal immigration. Biden has been hesitant to distance himself from the mass deportations that occurred on Obama’s watch. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who was a member of that same administration, has said “I have learned the lessons of the past. It seems like… Biden hasn’t.”
Castro has called for decriminalizing illegal border crossings as well.
It’s easy to see how Castro could make Biden appear too centrist in a party moving left on immigration.
In a successful showdown, Biden will be able to deflect a potential attack and not be forced to move too far from the political center on immigration (the defining issue for President Donald Trump).
As I said at the beginning, the CNN debate is a high risk, high reward opportunity for Biden. It may be the debate where Biden helps to lock in his electability advantage, or it could be the one which reinforces that it was a mirage to begin with.