Sunday, March 15, 2020
BTRTN Debate Preview: Bernie's Last Stand... And How Joe Should Handle It
The Democratic campaign continues: tonight the two remaining candidates will debate on CNN starting at 8:00 EST. The key question: why is the essentially vanquished Bernie Sanders insisting on spending two hours attacking the best chance Democrats have to remove Donald Trump from the White House? Steve provides his preview of tonight’s septuagenarian-a-septuagenarian debate.
In a different universe – say, three weeks ago – tonight’s debate would have been must-see tv… an epic, consequential, first mano-a-mano face-off for the Democratic nomination between the candidates who emerged as the champions of the two ideological branches of the party.
Now, it may be “must see tv” only because America is a nation on lockdown, frozen in front of their tv sets.
Yes, it was February 22 – just three weeks ago yesterday – that Bernie Sanders crushed his opponents in the Nevada primary and appeared to be on an unstoppable march to the Democratic nomination, and most Americans would have guessed that “COVID-19” was the name of a new mystery thriller on Netflix.
Today, Americans are hand-sanitizing hourly, being urged to stay home, uncertain of ongoing income, and traumatized by the stock market’s bludgeoning of fragile 401ks. They are left with all too much time to wonder what fresh miseries await and for how long they will endure. State and local officials have stepped up dramatically to fill the vacuum of leadership and action at the Federal government level, creating a sense that in the face of a global pandemic, it is every town for itself.
To properly characterize how overwhelming a story the coronavirus has become, one of the most stunning comebacks in the history of American politics has been relegated to the “C” bloc of cable news programming, as Joe Biden journeyed from deflated spare tire to conquering hero in a matter of days. First came Biden’s shocking margin of victory in South Carolina, which mushroomed into a crushing array of Super Tuesday primary wins, and then reached a crescendo in Missouri, Michigan, Mississippi and Idaho. It appears to be game over -- except for the Bernie shouting -- as the centrist lane of the Democratic Party instantly came together like a gigantic electromagnet sucking up loose nails.
And yet, despite having been pounded in waves of ever-widening, ever-Bidening Joe-mentum, Bernie Sanders is not ready to concede. Why not?
For starters, Bernie Sanders is nothing if not stubborn, obstinate, determined, and utterly lacking motivation to stand down. Bernie raised $42 million dollars in February, he’s got wildly passionate supporters, and he thinks he’s right. About everything. At 78 years old, he knows that this is his last shot. Where other candidates can be wooed with offers of cabinet positions and future considerations, no bargaining chip holds the slightest interest to Bernie Sanders. And Bernie and his supporters are still smarting about the way the party establishment rallied around Hillary Clinton in 2016. They feel it is their turn.
Some say that Bernie is hanging on simply to exhaust whatever leverage he has to shove Joe Biden further left on policy issues. Perhaps. But the viewing audience at home will not be privy to the nuances of motivation. What viewers will see is one candidate launching broadsides at the other, hoping to score some direct hits.
What should make Democrats nervous – and perhaps furious -- is that Bernie Sanders has the capacity to do damage to Joe Biden tonight.
The way Bernie sees it, he finally -- ironically --has Joe Biden exactly where he wants him, in a one-on-one contest with a famously mediocre debater. It is true: Bernie Sanders is a vastly better debater than Joe Biden. He has his perfectly scripted, perfectly timed sound bytes polished to a micron. He does not get flustered. He knows how and when to pause for dramatic effect, punctuate his points by modulating his tone, when to concede a small point to win a bigger one, when to deftly inject humor, and he is relentless when he has his opponent on the ropes.
In Bernie’s eyes, behind one podium is a ferocious, seasoned, excellent debater in command of substance, detail, and policy; behind the other, the affable, gaffe-able, and occasionally laughable Grandpa Faux Pas, the guy who assembles sentences as if they were complicated Ikea bookshelves. Bernie Sanders wants the chance to out-debate Joe Biden, if only to make it appear that his policies are superior, not his rhetorical gifts.
Well, Bernie, there you go again. The astonishing series of events which took Joe Biden from also-ran to Super and then Super-Duper Tuesday not only made him the front runner, but they actually made him a better candidate.
Basking in the warm embrace of most of his former rivals, overwhelmingly the choice of voters, and a calming presence in the face of a terrifying public health crisis, Joe Biden has found his voice. He realizes that just like Barack Obama, he will be the Democratic nominee for President during a period of time when America is reeling from a global crisis exacerbated by the careless, lax, inattentive policies of an ignorant, incompetent Republican administration. Channeling his inner Barack, Joe Biden has become the no-drama Obama for a party and a nation that is ready for a steadying, sturdy hand at the tiller.
Mark our words: by Wednesday morning when the dust settles in the next round of primaries, Bernie Sanders will either have withdrawn from the race, or Democrats will begin practicing weapons-grade social distancing from Bernie Sanders.
In truth, the grand unification of the Democratic Party was not motivated by a sudden burst of charisma and inspiration from Joe Biden: it was a mass movement born of terror that Bernie Sanders was about to take center stage in a remake of “George McGovern and the Massacre of 1972.”
Terrified of being Berned to death, Democratic moderates fell in line behind a candidate who had won only one of the four primary or caucus contests, had failed to assemble an effective campaign organization, failed to raise a competitive level of campaign donations, and failed to have been judged the winner of any one of the ten debates to date. Vanquished rivals sprinted to Joe’s side and spoke glowingly of his goodness and decency. “That Joe Biden,” they gushed, “he’s a good guy.” As political hyperbole goes, this is akin to telling your friends that the cutest thing about the guy you just met on Match.com is that he is good at matching his socks.
Some would argue that a series of contentious one-on-one debates with Bernie would benefit Biden on the long-term, making him tougher, well-practiced, and more nimble in time for the Presidential debates. The downside risk, however, outweighs the benefit. Sanders could inflict wounds on Biden that could weaken him in the general election. Just two weeks ago, we learned an amazing lesson about the media power of the primary debates. In a brief 45 minutes, Elizabeth Warren was able to completely blunt if not negate the power of $300 million in advertising when she annihilated Michael Bloomberg on the debate stage. No, it’s not that all of America is tuned into these debates. It is that Facebook, Instagram, and cable news endlessly replay the most powerful sound bytes from the debate, extending, intensifying, and multiplying their impact.
Here’s a second fact to acknowledge: In many ways, Joe Biden actually benefited from the clogged, overcrowded debate stages and the ill-tempered shouting matches that they fostered. His weakness at debate was less glaring when his camera time was limited by the simple number of competitors vying for attention. In a one-on-one debate, there will be no hiding, and no respite. Tonight’s one-on-one debate format leaves Biden much more vulnerable.
In debates to date, Joe Biden has shown only two gears. There are times when he feels he must come across as vigorous, youthful, and energetic, and then there are other times when he strives to appear statesmanlike, presidential, ooze gravitas, and remain above the fray. Neither extreme has been terribly effective.
Low-T “presidential” Joe comes off as sluggish, wooden, and uninspiring, make him look like a prim and prissy Prius driver who prudishly insists on driving at 45 miles-per-hour on the interstate.
High energy Joe is worse. When striving to appear youthful and energetic, Biden races through answers in an often chaotic rush of credentials, lists legislation he claims to have authored, and invokes of the accomplishments of the 44th President as if his own. High-energy Biden will let his mouth slide into a fifth gear while his brain remains locked in third, thereby serving up the uncooked portion of half-baked thoughts. That is when gaffes happen.
Biden’s discomfort with debating is evident in the fact that he is the only candidate who will come to a dead stop in mid-sentence when the red light comes on indicating that his time is done. Under the guise of “adhering to the rules,” Biden actually welcomes the opportunity to stop speaking.
On Wednesday in Burlington, Vermont, Bernie told reporters exactly how he intends to try to attack Biden in the debate:
Bernie proceeded to list the familiar litany of issues where he sees himself at odds with the Democratic “Establishment:” the contention that the United States of America is the “only major country on earth where healthcare is not a human right,” climate change, education, student debt, mass incarceration, childhood poverty, and the role of money in politics. Bernie will attempt to frame Joe Biden as a tool of the Establishment that created and reinforces income inequality, and a career Washington bureaucrat whose campaign is being funded by billionaires who want to maintain the status quo.
Beyond his stated agenda, it is likely that Bernie – or the CNN moderators – will use those two hours to fully air out questionable positions that Joe Biden has taken in his very long and very well documented career. You will hear about Biden’s vote on the Iraq war, his support for the 1994 crime bill, which led to long-term radically disproportionate incarceration of African-American males. Bernie will likely attack Biden for a “status quo” approach to healthcare that allows pharmaceutical and insurance companies to make billions, and he will say that Biden supported NAFTA and other trade agreements that gave away American jobs.
Bernie will not bring up Hunter Biden... but the CNN moderators may. They will be quick to concede that neither Joe nor Hunter Biden broke any laws. But that won’t be the point. The question will be whether Joe Biden exercised a horrendous error in judgment by allowing his son to profit off a corrupt oil enterprise in a corrupt state, thus handing Donald Trump a club that he can use to bludgeon the Democratic Party. Joe Biden has not figured out how to respond to this charge.
But Bernie’s central message? He knows that secret to winning a debate is to challenge the opponent’s greatest perceived strength. This is far more effective than to merely remind the audience of a well-known liability. Right now, Joe Biden’s greatest strength is the perception that he is the candidate in the best position to beat Donald Trump. Biden is winning on the measure that is most important to the most Democrats.
In his remarks in Burlington, Bernie made clear that his theme for the debate will be to challenge this premise. He will cite the polling data that shows Bernie beating Trump. He may try his ill-supported argument that he generates greater voter turnout. Ironically, the best point he may offer on electability is the meta-argument: that he, Bernie, will be much more effective in a one-on-one debate with Donald Trump, proven by the fact that he is winning this very debate with Joe Biden.
Sure, Biden will try to turn the tables on Bernie. Biden has been effective in pasting Bernie with the charge that the price tag of his Medicare for All program is astronomical, though he might be wise to include Amy Klobuchar’s very effective secondary punch that even the majority of Congressional Democrats do not support Bernie’s Medicare-for-All proposal. Biden has slammed Bernie on his past support for legislation favorable to gun manufacturers. He has made the point that Donald Trump will use Bernie’s own label of “Democratic Socialist” to sow fear that Democrats want to turn the United States into a Communist country. Joe can talk about the ruinous effect that Bernie could have on down-ballot races, and can challenge Bernie relentlessly on his uneven relationship with Barack Obama.
There’s no doubt: both candidates will come well-armed with a fistful of good talking points. At the most basic level, it will be a question of who can recall them, deploy them, and make them stick.
But the fact that both bring strong talking points means that the “winner” of the debate will be determined by intangibles.
Sunday’s debate promises to be entertaining theatre, a sort of Rocky XXVII set in a three-stage Atria facility. Two near-octogenarians will go toe-to-toe with the future of the Democratic nomination, and therefore the presidency, and therefore the fate of our nation, and therefore the hospitability of our planet on the line.
Please, Joe, take a few extra minutes to prep for this one.
Joe, here are seven “do” and “don’ts” for your debate. Most involve a simple idea: leverage the power of your position. You are the leader. For just about any idea, charge, or policy Bernie can throw at you, you have a golden trump card… “Bernie, that may be your opinion, but more Democrats agree with me.” And how can you prove that, Joe? Because more Democrats are voting for you.
1. Study Ronald Reagan’s debate performances.
Get out the Beta-Max, Joe, and do the best homework you can do. Watch Ronald Reagan show you how the front-runner/incumbent leverages his position to put away the challenger.
Sunday is not the time to bring your “high-energy” personna. Joe, you have all the bargaining chips. You are the front runner. Flash that big gleaming smile. Relax. Win one like the Gipper.
When Bernie leans into the mic and rails about your support of the 1994 Crime Bill, stand back, gently shake your head from side to side, wait your turn, and then say words to the effect of “Bernie, there you go again. You voted for it, too. We both got it wrong. Now what have you done to fix it? Because the African-American community overwhelmingly trusts me to be the Democratic nominee.”
Smile. Relax. Point out that yours is the message, the campaign, and the candidacy that is resounding with the most Democrats. It is the great tautology of incumbency. “I deserve to be the leader because I already am the leader.”
2. Be the first to say “If you win the nomination, I vow to support you and work to get you elected, and I vow to demand that all of my supporters work and vote for you. Will you do the same for me?”
Keep reminding everybody: this is not about being the Democratic nominee, it is about removing Donald Trump from office. “I’m not the bad guy, you’re not the bad guy. Trump is the bad guy.”
3. Warm, emotional Joe works better than policy wonk Joe.
You are best when you are talking from your heart about people who you have encountered in a lifetime of public service. Indeed, you were extraordinary in Texas the night before Super Tuesday when you likened Pete Buttigieg to the son you lost… it was a remarkable moment of warmth, sincerity, and emotion. That is your “A” game… don’t let Bernie turn this into a quantitative shouting match in which he puts you on the wrong side of how many people are uninsured and how much wealth is concentrated in the one percent.
4. Take your time.
One of the most powerful things that you can do on a debate stage is to pause, and take a moment to reflect. Pete Buttigieg was probably the most pure and effective debater among all the Democratic contenders, and he often would wait a few beats before answering a question. It had the effect of making the response seem more carefully weighed, and therefore more thoughtful and sincere.
5. Remember, you want Bernie’s support, but what you need is Bernie’s supporters.
Take every opportunity to remind the audience that you and Bernie agree on so much. “Bernie, we both want every American to be insured. We both want the cost of prescription drugs to be reduced. We both want to raise the wages for the middle class. We both intend to increase taxes on the wealthy. We want the same things, Bernie. It’s just a matter of how to get there. More Democrats support my ideas on how to achieve them.”
Give Bernie credit for being a thought leader in the party. Tell the audience that he has done more to shine a bright light on income inequality than anyone.
And yes, Joe, take a minute to flatter Bernie’s supporters. Tell them that you admire their passion, their idealism, and their willingness to work for their candidate. Tell them that no matter who wins, the Democratic Party will desperately need them.
5. Let the moderators throw the punches at Bernie.
Joe, you don’t need to bring up Bernie’s support of legislation that favors gun manufacturers. Let the moderators do the dirty work. Bite your tongue. No cheap shots, no poison darts. Don’t give Bernie’s supporters a single reason to be angry with you.
6. The reason you should be the nominee? More Democrats agree with you!
When in doubt, remind the audience that the leader of the Democratic Party should be the candidate who most Democrats support. Talk about how many of the Democratic candidates who have dropped out – Klobuchar, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Harris, Booker, and Yang -- have all thrown their support to you, and how not a single one has come out for Bernie. So far, you’ve won more votes and more delegates. That’s not just a statistic, it is becoming the core rationale for your candidacy.
7. If Bernie gets worked up, angry, or raises his voice, pounce.
“Bernie,” you say, quietly. “What you are doing is exactly what Donald Trump wants, but it is also exactly what Americans do not want. Trump wants us screaming at each other, Americans don’t. We’ve had enough screaming, enough anger, enough divisiveness. After four years of polarization, recrimination, and bitterness, Americans want civil, respectful discourse. Let us now demonstrate to America what life under Democratic rule will be… we may not always agree, but we do not need to be angry, disrespectful, or insulting.”
Joe, think about it this way: Bernie wanted one last debate to try to convince your supporters to consider him. You should view this debate as your first opportunity to reach out to his supporters and tell them how important they are in the bigger battle. We need all hands on deck, united to defeat Donald Trump.
There are two final advantages that Joe Biden has been handed as we go into Sunday night. Both relate to the coronavirus emergency. The first is that polling indicates that voters are more likely to trust Biden than Sanders in terms of dealing with a major crisis. The second impact of the coronavirus is that Sunday’s debate will be conducted without a live audience. It would have been inevitable that Bernie’s supporters in a live audience would have reacted far more enthusiastically to their candidate’s soaring rhetoric than Biden’s troops would to their candidate. The absence of a live audience eliminates a hyoooooooge advantage for Sanders.
Somehow, the empty hall will be a telling metaphor for the evening. Bernie, the Democratic Party has moved on. What if they gave a debate and nobody came?
Super Tuesday was a stunning, unprecedented, and overwhelming triumph for Joe Biden. Last Tuesday in Michigan and a host of southern states, he ran the table again.
Joe doesn’t even have to defeat Bernie in this debate. He is the frontrunner. If Sunday’s debate is judged a tie, then Biden emerges from the debate still the frontrunner. If the primary voting on March 18 follows the patterns set on March 4 and March 11, the race is over, and then the howls for Bernie’s departure from the race will be truly overwhelming.
There you go again.
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