Politics

Seize the Vital Center

Let the also-rans be front-runners for a while.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris onstage.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris debate in Detroit on Wednesday. Jim Watson/Getty Images

The Kamala Harris we saw in the first Democratic presidential debate in June—the fearless challenger who knocked down Joe Biden—did not materialize on Wednesday night. It wasn’t possible for her to. The Harris who showed up at the second-round debate was a front-runner, a target of criticisms, and not the lower-first-tier candidate landing direct shots on the unsuspecting polling leader. This time, the lower-than-first-tier candidates were landing shots on her.

Harris was uncomfortable enough with Biden criticizing the cost of her health care plan—she’s not comfortable talking about health care, period—but she had Sen. Michael Bennet coming after her as well. Eventually, she resorted to the “stop using Republican talking points” talking point, which is something one should only do after adequately refuting the Republican talking point.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, meanwhile, targeted Harris throughout the night. During the discussion of criminal justice reform, Gabbard pounded Harris’ record as a prosecutor, and encouraged her to apologize to those she had wronged. Suddenly, Harris was doing her best Biden impression, scowling at the amateurs who’ve never had to make tough decisions with power before.

“I am proud of that work,” Harris said. “And I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches, or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor, but actually doing the work.”

[Support Slate’s 2020 coverage. Join Slate Plus.]

Biden himself avoided the singular, headline-grabbing flub of the first debate, but still stammered and lost his wording and took on water not just from Harris, but from Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, Kirsten Gillibrand, and anyone else who smelled weakness in the polling leader. They all did.

The contrast in energy, preparation, and dexterity between those targeting the top contenders and the top contenders themselves was strong enough to suggest the debate system ought to be turned upside-down, or inside-out. Whoever wants to run against Donald Trump needs to be convincing both as attacker and as target, to dish it out and to take it. Voters can’t properly judge the quality of the candidates until they’ve seen each one in both roles.

So as long as the Democratic National Committee is putting low-polling candidates onstage, it should allow them to present themselves in full: Let them be the front-runners in the next debates.

All you have to do is rotate bodies: Move Harris, Biden, Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren to the ends of the stage and put Jay Inslee, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Julián Castro or Bill de Blasio in the middle, where the moderators can focus the questioning and fight-picking on them. Dredge up the grime that must be there in their records. (Is there grime on Jay Inslee? We’ll have to learn.) Moderators could spend an hour painting for viewers the crime scene of Charlotte the groundhog; de Blasio might flee the stage in a panic.

Meanwhile, from near the wings, Joe Biden would have to demonstrate he can seize initiative and find a way to fight for more than five minutes on camera in the course of two hours. Moderators could bar anyone from challenging him unless he’d gone after them first.

Otherwise, the debates, and what they reveal about the candidates, will stay unbalanced. Unless they just have Biden, Harris, Sanders, and Warren share the stage to themselves, so we’d see an equal contest between candidates with something to lose. But how fair would that be?