Joe BidenJoe BidenJill Biden campaigns for McAuliffe in Virginia Fill the Eastern District of Virginia Biden: Those who defy Jan. 6 subpoenas should be prosecuted MORE’s first debate of the 2020 primary was objectively a failure. Biden was far from a crisp orator, looked unprepared for the attacks he faced and seemed out of touch with today’s liberal base. But even if he had made coherent points and artfully deflected criticism of his record, would it have made a difference?
No. We would still consider the night a loss. The debate stage configuration, conceived by the Democratic National Committee, set him, and any other moderate candidates, up to fail.
Like the GOP debates in 2015, there has already been plenty of criticism of how the DNC managed to juggle over 20 candidates, and clearly, they learned nothing from the challenges the RNC faced when they had 18 candidates in the primary. I’m not even talking about how ridiculous it is that the former vice president had to share a stage with Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonMarianne Williamson: Steven Donziger sentencing is meant to have a 'chilling effect' on environmentalists Marianne Williamson calls federal judge's handling of Steven Donziger case 'unconstitutional' Marianne Williamson calls on Biden to drop efforts to extradite Assange MORE, the next head of New Zealand’s department of tourism, and Andrew YangAndrew YangYang says he has left Democratic Party Yang says presidential bid 'messed with my head' Yang in new book: Trump might have won in 2020 'if not for the coronavirus' MORE, the Scourge of Circumcision, while the sitting governor of Montana had to watch from home.
I’m talking about the crippling effect of a live audience.
One of the first steps in debate preparation is identifying times where the candidate can connect with the audience. Think about iconic moments in past presidential debates and it’s hard to miss that they all involve a connection with the audience: when Ronald Reagan looked at the camera and spoke directly to the viewers, asking “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” or when Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton on the mend after infection lands him in hospital Biden sends 'best wishes' to Clinton following hospitalization Appeals court allows Texas abortion law to stand MORE asked an audience member to tell him about her economic struggles right after President Bush told her that her question didn’t make sense.
When a personal connection is critical to the success of a campaign, 30-second, pithy answers leave the candidates unable to give a thoughtful response to a complicated policy question. An audience eager to erupt for a zinger gives us a debate of applause lines, where extreme opinions triumph and reason sinks. Last week was just a glimpse of the mess the DNC has created. Rather than a substantive policy debate, the candidates only hope of energizing the room were ideas like abolishing private health plans for 180 million Americans and cancelling everyone’s student debt. The moderate candidates are given an impossible task of firing up the crowd when they have Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders, Manchin escalate fight over .5T spending bill Sanders blames media for Americans not knowing details of Biden spending plan Briahna Joy Gray: Proposals favored by Black voters 'first at the chopping block' in spending talks MORE (I-Vt.) throwing rhetorical raw meat into the shark tank.
As we saw, even when Biden did deliver a sharp, hard hitting point, he was only met with the claps of the few donors he gave audience tickets to.
These candidates feed off the responses they get. So, when Andrew Yang is getting cheered for offering every American a thousand dollars a month, how are you supposed to sit and argue for policies that might be accomplished? It’s a structure that encourages candidates to move further and further to the fringes.
When the validation you seek mid-debate comes via the cheers from the most ideologically motivated and engaged members of the party, you will move closer to where they are and further from where the electorate you ultimately need to inspire are.
As we saw last week, if you’re a moderate candidate you have two choices – abandon your reasonable approach (even though you’ll never out Bernie, Bernie), or hold your ground, receive no applause, and watch the next day as cable news pundits declare your performance a disaster (or if you’re lucky, mediocre).
It’s a tricky issue for the DNC. Sure, it’s awkward for candidates to deliver applause lines to an empty room. Debate tickets are also a great reward for the party and campaigns to gift their most important donors. But the debate audience is a devastating component for any centrist candidate. It’s also destructive to a party that is well positioned to win the presidency, and their biggest obstacle is their own radicalization that alienates them from the independent voters they must convince next year.
Attendees ready to “oohh and aww” at the show are great for circuses. After mocking the GOP in 2016 as a circus, last week the DNC raised the tent and placed the clowns in the center ring. And the live audience clamoring for insanity got exactly what they came for.
Fred Brown is a Senior Director with Dezenhall Resources, a D.C. crisis communications firm. Fred has served as a spokesman for Republican campaigns, as well as the Republican National Committee during the 2016 Presidential Primary Debates.