EDITOR's NOTE: Mr. Berg-Andersson's Commentary below was written not long before the formal announcement of the candidacy of former Pennsylvania Congressman Joe Sestak for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: thus, there are now 25 "major contenders" for that nomination as of the posting of this piece, 5 of whom will not be participating in this week's first series of debates.
Nearly four years ago, as the first Republican debates (the GOP, of course, being the "Out" Party as regarded the Presidency back then) were about to get underway, I wrote the following- after having quoted unsuccessful 1976 Democratic presidential contender, former Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma's "The winnowing-out process has begun, and we have just been winnowed in":
Nearly four decades after Senator Fred Harris uttered the above-quoted [in?]famous statement, at least a "winnowing-in" process begins- not with either a Presidential Primary in the Granite State or the 'First in the Nation' Caucuses in Iowa- but, rather, with bifurcated nationally televised debates...
And so-- here we are again! With debates, this time round, amongst Democratic presidential contenders, debates also "bifurcated" (albeit in a different way).
The last time, the Grand Old Party's presidential hopefuls were put on stage- in a series of televised debates- in a most unfortunate manner. The moderating network carrying the first debate- FOX- had hoped to keep the debate to, at most, the top 10 major Republican contenders for the nomination; however, there were- at the time of that first debate in early August 2015- 17 Republicans (at the time, a record number within a Major Party all at the same time) who counted as "major contenders" and, in the end, there ended up being a two-tiered system: the Top 10 GOP contenders (based on how they were faring within an aggregate of certain national polls) would debate in Prime Time, while those 7 contenders thereby "left out" would hold a separate debate (held at the same site as the larger one) earlier that same evening...
I myself tried to be most kind: referring to this earlier debate as the 'undercard' (with the Prime Time one as the 'Main Event')- borrowing the terminology of Boxing; but, seemingly inevitably, the earlier debate (a format which was to be repeated in subsequent venues) came to be known as the 'Children's Table', with its participants denominated the 'Not Ready for Primetime Players'. The second such debate then turned this whole concept into something of a farce when a few of the top contenders demanded (demands that were actually met!) that businesswoman Carly Fiorina (who otherwise would not have qualified for Prime Time) be included in what was to now be an 11-person lineup, much to the chagrin (whatever their own public reaction) of those still left to debate in what was functionally an "anteroom" by comparison!
Now, four years later, the Democrats faced an otherwise nightmarish prospect of, somehow, accommodating what has turned out to be two dozen major contenders (a new record, obviously) without also facing the problems- not to also mention the ridicule- the Republicans themselves faced back in 2015. And it, of course, remains to be seen whether the Democrats' solution has really proven to be any better!
But such "reviews" will be for after this first series of Democratic Party Presidential Debates. For now, it will merely be noted that the solution the Party of the People has implemented involves, first, not relegating qualifying presidential contenders trailing in the polls to a separate- frankly, demeaning- 'undercard' (but, instead, randomly mixing leading candidates with these others on the same stage) and, second, holding two separate debates, each in Prime Time but a day apart, each containing a manageable number of contenders vying for that Party's 2020 presidential nomination.
20 of the 24 major contenders for that nomination (who qualified based on a combination of aggregate polling data and donations to respective campaigns) will end up taking part in either of these first two debates this week (I'll have more to say about the 4 Democratic presidential contenders left out of these events later in this piece, by the way). A random drawing has determined just which candidate will be on stage on which night, and they (10 different candidates appearing on each night) will be placed on stage- from its middle, to either stage left or stage right- based on their respective positions in the latest polling data.
On the first night (Wednesday 26 June), Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren will share mid-stage with former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke (who ran a strong, but ultimately unsuccessful, race against Republican Senator [and 2016 GOP presidential hopeful] Ted Cruz in 2018); Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota will flank Warren and O'Rourke, respectively. To Senator Booker's left will be (in order) former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, and New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio; while to Senator Klobuchar's right will be (again, in order) Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, and former Maryland Congressman John Delaney.
The second night (Thursday 27 June) will have former Vice-President Joe Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (the strongest challenger to eventual presidential nominee Hillary Clinton back in 2016) sharing mid-stage, with South Bend (Indiana) Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris on either side of them. To Mayor Buttigieg's left (in order) will be businessman Andrew Yang, former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, and spiritualist/self-help author Marianne Williamson; and to Senator Harris's right (in order) will be New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, and California Congressman Eric Swallwell.
Already, as seems clear, the dynamics within each night's debate promise to be at least somewhat different:
The first night features only Senator Warren among the top 5 Democrats in polling: she, thereby, has a real chance to put out her own message without having to face the other "big names" running against her even being present, and at a time when she has been well moving up in the polls of late. At the same time, however, she will be sharing the debate stage with many other candidates who most need to "punch above their weight" in order to gain any traction in the polls going into, not only the earliest Presidential Primaries and Caucuses next year, but also (much closer in time, therefore far more important to them) the next series of televised debates: thus, Warren will also pretty much be the only "major target" on that stage and it will, therefore, be as much a test for her (albeit for different reasons) as it might be for any of the other contenders sharing the stage with her that same evening.
But it is the second night that has been dubbed the 'Celebrity Death Match': first off, you have former Vice President Biden- the quintessential 'Elder Statesman' (or "Old Pol", depending on one's point of view), and inheritor of what might be called the 'Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton' political mantle- standing right next to Senator Sanders who, four years ago, proved to be the biggest challenge- from the Progressive Left- to that very mantle. Then, two others among the top 5 Democrats in polling are also right there: Mayor Buttigieg (who will be, if only by default, the "Beto O'Rourke" of this second evening: that is, a 'Young Turk' within the Party hoping to get himself even more into the "Big Time" with his performance) and Senator Harris (not only the second Black woman to ever serve in the Senate, but also the first of South Asian Indian descent in that body)- a one time State Attorney General who is yet another (if only potentially, dependent on how she herself does) 'heavyweight' within the Democratic field...
the remaining contenders on that second night's stage, of course, will also be trying their best to "punch above their weight" in hopes of both improving their standing in the polls (and, thereby, their own future presidential prospects) and getting their respective messages out. It will certainly be most interesting to see how that second debate works out: will Biden or Sanders (or both!) become the "major target(s)" that Senator Warren herself risks becoming the night before? Or will the fact that 4 of the top 5 Democrats in current polling share the stage, somehow, blunt this in a way that was not to be seen during that first debate? (Put another way: will Warren's not appearing on stage with the other four "top guns" turn out to be but politically pyrrhic?)
And, in both debates, the fate of the trailing candidates will be most in the balance, right off the bat!
In an earlier piece I wrote, now nearly four years ago, I noted the following pitfalls for presidential contenders trailing in the polls going into the earliest pre-Primary debates:
First off, there will almost certainly be at least a couple to more than a few "casualties" even before the Iowa Caucuses and New Hampshire Primary early next year. This will primarily be because, despite the vast sum of money that has been- and will continue to be- raised within all these campaigns put together, there is still only so much campaign cash to "go around":... thus, there will be more than a few arms around a candidate's shoulder and all too many "I'm sorry, son, but I now like so-and-so over there as a possible President much better now"s which, in turn, may well come to signal the death knell of the dreams of at least some presidential contenders whose prospects looked even remotely sunnier back when they first let it publicly be known they were actually running some time before.
Yet, even beyond this, somebody amongst those "lucky" enough to be a participant in that first debate will, almost certainly, make a noteworthy mistake, if not a major gaffe (one that will thereafter be seen over and over on the late local news throughout the country...)... ; somebody's campaign will spend much of the following morning "clarifying" its candidate's untoward or unthinking (where not even also unthinkable!) remarks from the night before; somebody will be making the rounds of nationally televised morning news and information shows (both over-the-air and on cable) repeating, over and over again, a variant of 'Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa'
Herein we can discern one of the inherent risks in the Democrats now holding two debates, involving different candidates in each, on successive evenings: for, should there be just such a mistake or gaffe on the first night (this coming Wednesday), it will certainly carry over into the following debate (on Thursday), forcing the candidates on stage that second night to have to address an ancillary issue raised by the conduct of a rival for the Party's presidential nomination not even in that same room! But, even absent such a problem ever emerging (to here further quote from myself from four years prior):
Simply put:... one or more of the "survivor"s... will- truly- be "envying the dead" (the "dead" here being... contenders who- because of national polling numbers that were too low hitherto- will have been left out of that first debate). But some of these "dead" will, thereafter, be "dead" no more: for, among at least some who had not at all made the 'cut'..., having not made said 'cut' will have proved to be the proverbial "blessing in disguise" and their campaigns will begin to rise in the polls as those of others- likely because of what had taken place during that first debate- will, conversely, start to fall!
Which brings me now to the four major Democratic presidential contenders left out of these first two debate nights: these being Montana Governor Steve Bullock, former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, Miramar [Florida] Mayor Wayne Messam, and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton:
Can any of these four gain ground- that is: enough ground to at least qualify for the next series of debates amongst Democratic Party presidential hopefuls- as a result of anything untoward that might befall any of the other 20 during this week's debates? For the "big names"- Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg and, perhaps (Wednesday evening will tell!), O'Rourke- can survive a not too serious gaffe, at least this early in the "game"; however, those trailing the aforementioned might not be as able to do so and any such faltering on a trailing candidate's part thereby becomes all the more devastating, potentially opening the door for at least one (if not more) of those "left out" to take their place in the polls, where not also on the debate stage in future!
One last thing about these first Democratic Party presidential debates: while the contenders on stage will have no control (nor should they!) over what the debate moderators- representing various NBC networks/platforms this week- might ask them, these debates had better not devolve into an "I can defeat President Trump, and none of the lot of you even can!"-fest. Yes, the policies- where not also personality- of President Trump and his Administration cannot be avoided (nor should it be), but it also should not become predominant...
for the Democrats contending for that Party's 2020 presidential nomination have to, above all else, put forth their own policy positions and their own respective political agendas: allowing President Trump to figuratively "enter the room" (as a silent "11th debater") whilst they are doing so would be a huge- if not even grave- political mistake, even this early in the process. Should one, or both, debates end up as more something of a verbal "reverse TweetStorm", this would have to be seen to have been a failure on the part of the Democrats!
In that later piece of mine written on the eve of those first Republican debates back in August 2015, I noted that what those debates were engendering, going into 2016, was but a political battle- not a military one (therefore no actual blood will be spilled-- or so one hopes!): but it is nonetheless a battle that has been overdue now for well over a quarter century. It is, in fact, a battle over what the Republican Party of the United States itself is now in the (and, in addition, what it will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future after) the middle of the second decade of the 21st Century of our Era.
Four years on, as we now approach the end of that same "second decade of the 21st Century of our Era", I could write much the same about the Democratic Party of the United States, for an important question still well begs: what is the Democratic Party itself-- now, and for the foreseeable future?
Truth be told, this is the very discussion the Democratic Party should have held four years ago, as Barack Obama's Presidency was coming to its end: as things turned out, the long slog towards the 2016 Democratic National Convention that was the Hillary vs. Bernie battle was but a binary- overly simplistic, even at times almost cartoonish- version of just such an internal debate. Had the very persona of one Hillary Rodham Clinton not been the "vortex" that pretty much sucked almost all the air out of a real contest for that nomination (for there was no way the Democratic Party, as an institution, was going to permit Senator Sanders, a self-declared Independent [despite his caucusing with the Democrats in the Senate], to become its 2016 standard-bearer, when [after all] it was Secretary Clinton's "turn" [after having lost a different kind of slog towards the Party's nomination to then-Senator Barack Obama eight years before]- hence controversies surrounding the very terms "Superdelegate" and "Closed Primary" still resonating going into 2020), the Democratic Party might well have answered that most fundamental question about itself already.
One can then only imagine what might have happened, come the General Election of November 2016, had Hillary Clinton not run in the first place and, as a result, the Democrats thereafter fielded a rather large number of major candidates (OK, likely it wouldn't have been two dozen!) comparable to the 17 the Republicans themselves fielded during that presidential election cycle. Win or lose back in November 2016, such a Presidential Primary race beforehand would've been most beneficial to that Party as a whole...
the Party of the People now has a chance to rectify that which went awry for it four years before (at least in terms of more clearly defining that Party's "soul"): so rectifying (or, perhaps, not) begins this very week!