On Thursday night, we’ll find out which Democratic presidential candidates will share the stage during two nights of primary debates later this month.
In 2016, when the Republican field was too big for everyone to share the stage, the candidates were divided into early, less-watched debates for low-polling candidates before a prime time affair featuring the serious contenders. But as part of a Democratic National Committee effort to avoid any trace of favoritism, Democrats are holding their forums over two nights, with the candidates getting divided up not by performance, but by random drawing.
As we saw last time around, the groups can make a difference. The most memorable moment from the June forums came when Sen. Kamala Harris — prefacing her remarks as “the only black person on this stage” — took on Joe Biden for his record on school busing and his seemingly kind words for segregationists. Had the two drawn separate nights, Biden would have ducked Harris’ interrogation, and the race today would look different.
The debates will be July 30th and 31st at 8 p.m. ET in Detroit. The drawing is Thursday at 8 p.m. as well. Here’s what we’re watching for when the candidates get sorted.
What if Joe Biden finds himself opposite Kamala Harris again?
He better have prepared this time around. The former Vice President — and still the front-runner in the Democratic primary — took perhaps the harshest body blows from the junior Senator from California, known for her prosecutorial mettle and, now, considerable debating skills. But Biden has avoided any racial gaffes since the last debate, and it seems doubtful that Harris would attack him a second time based upon any personal experience with policy he either supported or opposed. She pushed herself to the top tier, and the time has come for her to make her affirmative case for the presidency. It will be fascinating to see whether Biden has any preloaded attack lines to try to knock her down, seeing as she would clearly be his most obvious threat.
Will we get a Sanders-Warren showdown?
What happens if Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the leading lights of the Democratic Party’s ascendant progressive wing, share the debate stage? After a sluggish start, Warren has steadily gained ground on Sanders in most polls; the RealClearPolitics polling average now shows her and Sanders tied at 15 percent. Warren’s rise hasn’t gone unnoticed: Sanders took a shot at her last month when he retweeted to his nine million followers a story about “centrists” warming to Warren. Will Warren fire back at Sanders if they’re onstage together? Or will they stick to their equally ambitious policy agendas, tussling over whose student-debt-relief plan is superior or whose tax-the-rich agenda better tackles the obscene income inequality in this country? The worst-case scenario is if the moderators get hung up on labels and try to manufacture a clash between Sanders and Warren over “capitalism” versus “democratic socialism.” A plea to CNN’s moderators: Don’t do this.
Why. Is. This. Being. Televised?
The debates aren’t reality television and they’re not a sporting event. They’re forums aimed at helping voters assess who should become the world’s most powerful individual, with millions of lives and livelihoods are at stake. So why is CNN televising the draw like some off-brand version of the NCAA’s Selection Sunday? Sure, this is hardly the most damaging way in which we confuse politics with entertainment and focus on rhetoric over consequence, but it would be such an easy one to avoid.
The good news? You don’t have to watch it. The results will be available the minute the drawing is done and at any minute from now until the debates start July 30th. Life is short, summer is shorter. Go outside.