Biden has a lot at stake in first debate

Biden has a lot at stake in first debate
© Getty Images

For all the chatter about the stakes as 20 Democratic presidential candidates take the debate stages this week, the contest probably won't look much different Friday than it does today.

Political debates with a field this large this early rarely alter the dynamics of the race.

An exception was four years ago when Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE's bombasts and insults, including a vulgar attack on a female moderator, surprisingly captivated Republican voters.


There is no Trump-like demagogue in the Democratic field; it probably wouldn't work if there were.

One of the non-front-runners will try a breakout ploy, but that rarely works except possibly providing a temporary blip. In a 1972 Democratic debate an obscure candidate pulled out a fake rat — hardly anyone remembers who. (His name was Ned Coll).

One of the also-rans may say something foolish, ending a futile quest. In 2011, Texas Gov. Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryOvernight Energy: 2020 Democrats roll out climate plans ahead of CNN forum | Trump blasts CNN for 'ignoring' facts | Officials roll back Obama-era lightbulb rules | Dem contenders split over nuclear energy Trump administration rolls back Obama-era lightbulb rules In defense of Karamo Brown, and civility MORE couldn't remember the three federal departments he wanted to eliminate. (The one he forgot was Energy which, under the Trump Administration, he now heads.)

The debates will take place on consecutive evenings; the second forum will focus on the front-runner, former Vice President Joseph Biden, who will be queried and challenged about a series of recent gaffes.

The rules, set by the Democratic National Committee with a drawing for which candidates will participate each night, has flaws. It excludes Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockThe Hill's Campaign Report: Democrats clash over future of party in heated debate The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers Left off debate stage, Bullock all-in on Iowa MORE, former chair of the Democratic Governor's Association and includes Marianne WilliamsonMarianne WilliamsonWilliamson urges followers to contact Senate, House over possible Bolton replacement Marianne Williamson clarifies hot mic moment The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers MORE, an author of self-help or motivational books. Of the five top tier candidates, four are bunched into the second night; the first night includes only Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE who has gained on, in some cases blown past, Vermont Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Sunday shows preview: Democratic candidates make the rounds after debate MORE among left wing followers.


Sanders, California Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Gun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' MORE and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegO'Rourke responds to Buttigieg's gun criticism: 'That calculation and fear is what got us here in the first place' Buttigieg: Biden gave 'bad' debate answer on slavery's legacy O'Rourke's debate moment reignites gun debate on Sunday shows MORE, the other main challengers to the former Vice President, will be on the same stage the next night with a limited opportunity to confront the front-runner.

Biden, who still enjoys a big lead in the polls, unnerved Democrats last week when, in noting his ability to work with those he disagrees with, cited Mississippi's segregationist Sen. Jim Eastland when he first came to the Senate in the 1970s.

On the merits he was on point. Ted Kennedy, the liberal lion of the Senate, got his aide, Stephen BreyerStephen BreyerGorsuch: Americans should remember political opponents 'love this country as much as we do' McConnell: GOP would 'absolutely' fill Supreme Court seat next year Juan Williams: McConnell's Supreme Court hypocrisy MORE, confirmed as a federal judge in a lame duck session when Republicans were about to take over the Senate because of his relationship with segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond; Breyer went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. Liberal icon Sen. George McGovern worked with farm state segregationists on legislation providing food stamps for poor people.

Two decades ago, Sen. Biden, in concert with racist North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, passed measures that avoided the United States being eviscerated in the United Nations. 

But he was appallingly tone deaf to cite Eastland; the racist Mississippian was succeeded by Thad CochranWilliam (Thad) Thad CochranBiden has a lot at stake in first debate The Hill's Morning Report — Trump turns the page back to Mueller probe Trump praises Thad Cochran: 'A real senator with incredible values' MORE, a moderate Republican who served 40 years and died last month. That underscores how yesterday this unfortunate reference was, reinforcing a problem for the 76-year-old Biden.

Democratic strategists warn he can't create many more of these traps. He has to stop looking in the rear view mirror and repeat — and repeat — he was chosen Vice President by Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaLet's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy Mattis dodges toughest question At debate, Warren and Buttigieg tap idealism of Obama, FDR MORE and he can beat Trump. More than ideology or background, the chief motivating force for Democratic voters this time is to win; Obama is the most popular figure in politics.

Only when the field is significantly winnowed, starting later this year, are telling political or policy exchanges really possible. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan, stealing a line from a movie, famously claimed he was paying for the microphone, it was a one-on-one New Hampshire debate against George H.W. Bush.

But even with ten contenders on the stage, each has to be cognizant they always are on. In a 1987 debate, the television pool camera would cut away to any candidate who was criticized by another. Two of the candidates were Jesse Jackson, a minister, and Paul Simon, a straight-laced Illinois Senator. When Jackson, in a biblical allusion, referred to "Simon the leper," the cameras immediately turned to the benign, bow tie-clad Paul Simon.

 Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.