The Slatest

OK, Everyone’s More or Less in for 2020. Let’s Just Start the Debates. I Have a Plan.

Biden clenches his fists while wearing a suit and tie and standing at a lectern in front of an American flag.
Joe Biden in Dover, Delaware, on March 16. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

With the Mueller report in a holding pattern, attention is now naturally turning back to the country’s other major ongoing high-stakes dramas: Chrissy Teigen’s new hamster and the Democratic primary campaign. The hamster seems to be doing well after having been briefly lost, while the primary’s field seems to be all but official at this point, with Stacey Abrams being the only big name yet to make a decision.* Joe Biden’s 2020 aspirations are taken as such a given that Democratic Party officials are already arguing about his strategic choices in the press; Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is reportedly getting in too, which would make him the second socially tolerant but fiscally moderate Coloradan to join the race. Polls have been pretty consistent in establishing a first tier of leaders (Biden, Bernie Sanders), a second tier of big-name hopefuls (Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke), a third tier of it’s-not-entirely-out-of-the-question contenders (Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, maybe Amy Klobuchar), and a fourth tier of long shots (everyone else, with a recent surge toward the third tier by Mayor Pete). From climate change urgency to energetic optimism to not-afraid-to-alienate-some-white-people progressivism, everyone who’s in has already more or less established what their initial pitch is. Primary voters, presented with a slate that runs the whole center-left-liberal continuum of ideology and personality, now have a chance to put all the speculation to rest by deciding what they, as an electorate, really want out of Donald Trump’s challenger (and, potentially, a president).

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They have that chance, that is, in January 2020, when voting actually starts.

Yes, primary voters have nine more months to spend drowning in punditry as the press, present company included, uses endless polling and subjective measures like media buzz, donor activity, and crowd size to try to discern what messages are working, with the knowledge that we may have to throw it all out (cf., one-time front-runner Howard Dean) when the actual elections start. Even the debates don’t begin until June, a schedule that was set several months ago, before it was clear how full the field would already be by March. In other words, we’ve got at least three more months of spinning our wheels and watching CNN town halls until it starts to get remotely real.

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Unless, that is, we adopt my Accelerated 2020 Plan for Figuring Out Whom to Vote for Without Empty News Cycles. The plan is simple: Instead of June, the debates would start as soon as Biden officially announces. In fact, he should have to go right from his announcement speech to the first debate. Since it looks like there will be about 16 “serious” candidates, depending on your definition of serious, a schedule of one debate every month could end up cutting the field in half before voting begins, if the 2016 Republican field is any indication: During that cycle, there were five pre-primary debates, and five candidates (Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, George Pataki, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker) who withdrew before Iowa.

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This schedule wouldn’t just be useful for maintaining horse-race interest and media momentum; there’s a reason those guys dropped out during debate season, which is that debates—for all their annoying cross-talk and canned one-liner absurdity—do tend to give viewers an idea of who is cutting it and who is not. As a prominent free market ideologue who’d won two gubernatorial elections in a purple state, Scott Walker looked like a formidable candidate on paper, but then he got onstage and everyone realized he was a no-charisma wet blanket who always looked like he was drooling a little. The irrelevance of George Pataki’s campaign was underlined when it became clear that neither moderators nor other candidates had any interest in interacting with him or acknowledging his presence on stage. And if you are reading this article, I probably don’t need to remind you of why any “having to talk in public without notes” format tends to expose Rick Perry. Even if they don’t come in for criticism or derision, meanwhile, some candidates end up dropping out after debates anyway because they were just barely hanging on in the first place, hoping for a fundraise-boosting national-broadcast miracle that didn’t arrive.

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The crucible atmosphere would only be enhanced by the reality that the 2020 Democratic primary is already shaping up to be vastly more oriented around policy ideas than the 2016 GOP version, which was oriented around finding out who could most aggressively call for the troops to keep transgender “illegals” out of your daughter’s bathroom. Moderators and audience questioners this time around are going to be keen to draw out differences between Dems on issues like universal health care and whether capitalism is an intrinsically flawed system that sucks the lifeblood from the heart of the people and can never be tamed, only destroyed. There’s going to be substance as well as style, which will hopefully help guarantee that this cycle’s round of large-field debates doesn’t end up producing the Democratic equivalent of Trump, though other recent events have dampened that possibility as well.

In summary, the time has come to begin the process by which candidacies are turned from potential national saviors into memes that signify humiliating public failure. Let’s debate.

Correction, March 27, 2019: This post originally misspelled Stacey Abrams’ first name.

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