Thursday, August 01, 2019

Democratic Debate Analysis (Second Night): Can Anyone Beat Biden But Biden?

Some takeaways from Part 2 of this week's Democratic presidential debates (my analysis of Part 1, as well as more general thoughts on debates, can be found here):

1. Joe Biden was the biggest target of attacks on Wednesday—unsurprisingly so, given his current status as the leading candidate in the race. And nearly all of the attacks were ideological jabs from the left: Castro and de Blasio on immigration, Gillibrand and Harris on women's rights, Gabbard on Iraq. What's not yet clear is how vulnerable Biden is to such criticisms; his frequent deployment of his service under Barack Obama as a defense shield in these situations prompted a frustrated response from Booker but may well turn out to be a perfectly effective strategy given Obama's continued popularity with the Democratic electorate. One important question that the debate raises is whether there is an argument that another Democratic candidate can make that's strong enough to bring Biden down, or whether Biden is ultimately much more vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds such as gaffes, or quiet concerns about his age, than open attacks from rivals.

2. One strategic implication of the "lanes" model of party nominations is that it can be advantageous for candidates to attack competitors who are the most ideologically, demographically, or stylistically similar to themselves, on the theory that they are competing over the same blocs of voters. But we haven't seen much evidence yet that Democrats are thinking this way. No Sanders vs. Warren, Buttigieg vs. O'Rourke, Harris vs. Booker, or Biden vs. Bennet showdowns erupted in either debate this week. This was partially due to CNN's transparent maneuvering on both nights to stoke cross-ideological conflict, but no candidates seemed particularly interested in challenging this network-imposed dynamic.

3. Underlying much of the discussion on both nights of the debate is a divide within the Democratic Party over the proper interpretation of the 2016 Clinton-Sanders race and the subsequent rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and company. Do these recent elections demonstrate that a majority of the Democratic Party continues to prefer Obama-style incrementalist politics? Or, instead, do they reflect a growing pressure at the party roots for transformative social change?