The entrance of Joe Biden into the arena ushers the 2020 Democratic primary contest into a new phase. It ends the opening round, or what seasoned politicos call the "money primary," in which the aspirants introduce themselves to the public and lay out their campaign themes while courting donors behind closed doors and hoping to gain positive media exposure and momentum. Barring the unexpected arrival of additional heavyweights, the field is now complete and the dynamic of the race is about to change dramatically.
It's all been rather well-mannered so far. It's clear to everyone that 2020 will be a do-or-die year for Democrats—and for U.S. democracy. It's going to require a big lift to rescue the republic nineteen months from now, and we're going to need each other. The eventual Democratic nominee will have to muster the broadest and most enthusiastic support among the entire electorate. That includes independents, registered Republicans, and many millions of off-the-sidelines voters, as well as Democrats who voted for, worked for, and donated to opposing candidates during the primaries. Every campaign wants to start the proverbial prairie fire, and many of us recall the excitement of feeling a certain burn four years ago, but we can't afford to burn bridges between factions of the party.
Despite all that, the urgent task right now for all twenty candidates is to distinguish themselves from their competitors in order to gain traction. This is why the second round of the presidentials is bound to feel more like the contact sport we know politics to be. You can expect this large field to start pairing off and squaring off around the dance floor. Watch for these crucial match-ups among the half dozen Dems in the first tier.
Biden and Bernie
Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the two most experienced politicians in the field are leading the pack at the end of the first round. I presume the former Veep understands that in an important sense, he’s being sent by a certain corporate-America segment of the Democratic donor base to trim the wings off the candidate from Our Revolution. He clearly intends to target the independent Vermont senator and he may well do damage, but it seems very likely that damage will be mutual. I expect Biden to take worse than he gives, and in short order.
Over and apart from the well-known set of weaknesses that took Biden down at various hurdles on campaign trails past, his biggest problem in 2019—way bigger than the handsiness stuff—is that he more than anyone else in this large field of candidates represents the tried and true, mainstream Democratic Party brand as voters over forty might know it. And that brand, as everyone has more or less tacitly acknowledged, is actually quite weak and vulnerable. Much of the policy record of the last two presidents from our party has by now come to smell fairly offensive. And you'll notice that not one of the nineteen other candidates is a person closely associated in the public mind with either Obama or the Clintons. That's not a coincidence.
By leaping in as a front-runner, Biden will inevitably dredge up more than a handful of those unpleasant olfactory memories from prior administrations. The smell will stick to him. We know Senator Warren is leaving room on her dance card for a meet-up with the former senator from Delaware, corporate America's home state. She just might leave him looking rather vanquished after a few rounds of debating the consequences of the 2005 bankruptcy bill and other corporate finance issues.
But with Biden and Bernie going mano a mano, they're likely to take each other down a peg. Both are strong candidates, to be sure, with a surprisingly large overlap in the slice of the voter base they attract. I expect they won't remain so far out in front for very long.
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Beto and Buttigieg
Most of the other Democratic hopefuls are sporting fresh faces and thinner records. They're running to become the brand-new, forget-the-past, young face of the party—attempting, in other words, to emulate Obama's winning strategy, the come-out-of-nowhere playbook. In that lane, two youthful males appear to be surging ahead. Both have seen a burst of media attention and swiftly rising donations. Both have demonstrated eloquence on the stump and an ability to score with diverse audiences, with rhetoric strong on values and generational appeals but noticeably lacking in specific policy positions.
This pair seems bound for a little direct tussle and do-si-do, assuming the young buck from South Bend hasn’t already swung the stallion from El Paso in the money and media primaries. In recent days Pete Buttigieg has appeared to be stealing a march on Beto O'Rourke. Certainly they will continue being compared. Voters and commentators will need to scrutinize their backgrounds and the milieu in which each rose to prominence. Some illuminating appraisals of O'Rourke's connections in El Paso and Buttigieg's record in South Bend have already appeared, such as here and here, respectively. It remains to be seen whether this "lane" is wide enough to sustain both candidacies for long, as these upstarts aim to project the right stuff while adding substance to their campaigns.
Warren and Harris
Would it be going out on a limb to predict that we may soon see some close and perhaps bruising encounters between the female contenders? It would be absurd to suggest there is room for only one female in the race, or only one young male or one old male for that matter. There will, however, be only one nominee, and that person will have to differentiate herself decisively from her competitors, perhaps with sharp elbows, on the way to outshining them.
For my money, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are the strongest of the female candidates. Their campaign styles to date have been intriguingly inverse. Warren was the first Democrat to enter the race and has distinguished herself with the most thoughtful and substantive policy proposals of any candidate in the field by far. The second-term senator has positioned herself as an insurgent to the Democratic establishment, and she has a credible progressive record to run on. The main questions surrounding her candidacy concern her political instincts, appeal as a retail politician, and electability on a national level. Harris, on the other hand, rose rapidly into the first tier on the strength of an appealing image and personality and the ability to connect with diverse or intersectional audiences. She brings an impressive portfolio but faces questions about her vague, evolving policy views and where she really stands ideologically.
If Biden and Sanders undercut each other's polling numbers as I predict, leveling the playing field between the six principals, the one-on-one matchups I've been delineating will become more important and probably more heated. As I see it, the shifting tenor of the contest could offer Warren her chance to dance into the lead during this second round of presidential tire-kicking, if she has what it takes to prevail in what she perennially calls the "fight." As a proven progressive and a known quantity, as a knowledgable, articulate spokesperson for the economic plight of the country's working class, as a former Republican, potentially able to mend fences within the Democratic factions and across the partisan gulf, and as a female fully prepared to govern, Warren may well present the most persuasive all-around argument for nomination, and the party's best shot at holding itself together and trouncing the morally bankrupt incumbent next November.