Impeachment Froze the Democratic Primary
S1: Consider for a second the unfairness of it all. Here we are about to have our sixth Democratic presidential debate. If you’re one of the 12 candidates up on that stage tonight. This was supposed to be your time.
S2: This was supposed to be a fall focused on 20 20 Democrats.
S1: Amy Walter talks politics on WNYC is the takeaway. She’s also the national editor at The Cook Political Report. She says in a presidential election year this season usually has a rhythm to it.
S2: Debate in October the third quarter FEC reports coming out in October. Debate in November. The field theoretically winnowing the more debates the higher the threshold to get onto the debate stage.
S3: It sounds like you had a really nice little calendar laid out. I did.
S4: I knew exactly what was going to happen and then it did it. Yeah. And then this impeachment thing happened.
S5: If you want to get just how much the political landscape has shifted for these candidates just go back and watch the last Democratic debate. No one mentions Ukraine. No one talks about federal elections violations. Yeah nothing’s changed but everything’s changed today on the show. Will impeachment overshadow the Democratic debate. Donald Trump was already dictating the terms of the 2020 election. Now Nancy Pelosi’s inquiry has the Democratic candidates stuck in neutral. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.
S1: It’s sort of funny how impeachment has changed just about everything about the 2020 presidential race and simultaneously nothing at all for someone who lives and breathes politics like Amy Walter this contest. It’s always been about one thing electability and that’s what this race is still about.
S6: Even now I think at its core what it means is who can get through the noise that is thrown up all around the president at all times in the chaos an impeachment has made this chaos louder and more distracting.
S1: So tonight when the Democratic candidates step on stage they’ve got one goal cut through the noise right.
S2: And who can break through that noise with a message that’s compelling with a message that connects because that’s also the only thing that’s going to break through. Adding to the noise by saying Trump so terrible trumps this I told you X Y Z was true. It simply is just more cacophony for a lot of voters.
S1: But this background hum we’re all getting used to the constant were of Washington anxiety and outrage. Amy says for at least one of these presidential candidates it’s an unexpected upside.
S2: Yeah I think that what impeachment at least at this moment has done is sort of freeze the field and in that sense it’s been good for somebody like Elizabeth Warren who is at her peak right now. It’s almost like freezing fall right when the leaves perfectly change right. So you’ve like frozen it at peak leaf time and she over the summer right proved that she could move in the polls. She was raising a lot of money. And what October November December were going to be about theoretically was putting Elizabeth Warren under the microscope. She’s now the co front runner. She now is the person who’s on the move. And so that person inevitably will get the scrutiny of the media and will get scrutiny from the other candidates and will be a target during the debates. But now all of the attention has been sucked away from the 20 20 Democrats and focused on what’s happening in Washington with impeachment. And she is able to then keep being her Elizabeth Warren self and there is not the sort of downsides that theoretically could have come in October.
S3: And part of what’s interesting to me is that her co frontrunner as you put it Joe Biden he’s pretty involved in these impeachment conversations because of course the president was asking Ukraine and even China to investigate the Biden family. But you see him frozen to where. Right. It’s not that his poll numbers are plummeting he’s just steady.
S6: It’s almost like Wily Coyote where he’s kind of like he hasn’t moved anywhere yet. He’s in a suspended animation and then but he’s off the cliff and then he’s going to drop Ryan.
S3: But if it’s not changing now when exactly.
S2: So that’s the question is does it change or I mean the theory for Biden from his campaign early on in this process was well this actually can help us because it shows that Donald Trump was so worried about me that they are willing to go to all these lengths these illegal lengths to go and dig up dirt on me. But instead of spending this month and next month if you’re Joe Biden focusing on making that contrast with Elizabeth Warren making the case for yourself about why you’re the most suited for this job looking stronger on the debate stage now you’re spending a lot of your time defending your role as vice president and your family. And that is not where we thought we would be. It’s not that people didn’t think that Joe Biden would be struggling. I think the challenge for Joe Biden at the very beginning is this similar to what it is now which is how adorable is he can he really go the distance. I don’t think anybody thought it would be his family. And Hunter Biden that would be the centerpiece of that question.
S3: Yeah because the durability. I mean you see it in the previous debates. If you just want to talk about performance where you can see with Joe Biden a struggle to sort of keep control over the narrative. And I feel like that’s where we were all focused. For but now we’re looking at something else.
S6: That’s exactly right. I think the concern now at the beginning was Joe Biden has to run a marathon here and at 76 years old and with the amount of political baggage he has to carry an answer for can he really make a marathon. Well now it’s OK now he still has to run this marathon and he’s carrying this baggage. And the one issue that was supposed to be his calling card the I’m the only one who can beat Donald Trump. I understand how to win in these battleground states because look at the polls look at how how well suited I am for places like this if that starts to be called into question then the rationale for his entire candidacy goes away. If this election is a referendum on Donald Trump then yeah pretty much anybody can win. If the election is a choice which the Trump campaign is absolutely going to make that the case and they have the money and the capacity to do that then how risky each Democrat is becomes much more important right. And we know what the attacks on Elizabeth Warren are going to be. We know what the attacks on Bernie Sanders are going to be and we know for Joe Biden now it won’t simply be what is Trump call him sleepy and oh yeah sleepy Joe but it’s corrupt Joe.
S2: And for Democrats who know that one of the the cleanest attacks on Trump is on this issue of corruption. The Biden story kind of muddles that message.
S3: So going into this debate there’s actually a lot of stuff happening that probably would be very big news if impeachment wasn’t sort of clogging up the works like Bernie Sanders having a heart attack and we haven’t really been talking so much about Bernie Sanders age before this. But you know I wonder how that’s going to play into this debate right and that nobody can bring these things out right.
S6: I mean is somebody in a debate going to say do we really want a 70 plus year old to be our nominee when at any moment one of them could have a significant health issue. I don’t I don’t think that’s going to be raised. It’s subtext certainly it’s sitting out there. Look I think the challenge for Sanders and for Biden for a long time pre any health issues that became public as this heart attack did was this concern that they are just too old for the presidency. And while Elizabeth Warren isn’t that much younger she’s still 70 years old.
S2: The way she acts and her sort of overall demeanor suggests she’s a lot younger than that. So I do think it has an impact not just on Sanders but also on Biden. If the whole question is we want to take the least risky path to the presidency find the candidate who is least likely to lose. If you if you really look at this field it’s hard to find a candidate especially the candidates that are polling very high right now who fits that comfortably.
S1: So Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren they’ve got this cold front runner status and they’ve made it pretty clear what kind of administrations they would run. For Biden it’s a restoration of American norms or more cynically a throwback to the time before.
S7: And he’s made it very clear that the reason he’s running for president is essentially to have a third Barack Obama term if you liked what you had during the Obama years. Well guess what you’re going to get that back. And yeah I’ll do stuff too. I’m not just going to like freeze us completely in place but basically going to be a third Obama term Elizabeth Warren is also very clear it’s not OK to just sort of say let’s bring back let’s get the band back together and maybe you know put out a couple new releases. We got to blow up the entire system and unless we do that unless we make big structural fundamental change nothing’s ever going to get better. So it’s a pretty clear I think for voters. They have a pretty clear difference in front of that like the choices are really distinct.
S1: But tonight it’s not going to be just Biden and Warren on the debate stage. They’re going to be 10 other candidates up there. Each of them hoping that in this reality show you’re going to be the one to give them a rose. So what have we seen. We’ve seen Julian Castro go after Biden to distinguish himself. We’ve seen Kamala Harris take on Biden’s congressional record. We’ve seen Amy Klobuchar tsk tsk her fellow candidates for being argumentative with one another. When Amy Walter sees this the real question for her is whether any of these lower tier candidates breakthrough have a moment claim that mantle. They’re all reaching for electable.
S7: There’s one candidate who has been pretty explicit in these last few weeks about making a case for why he is not just better than one candidate or the other. Right. I’m going to go after Joe Biden because he’s a front runner or I’m going to go after Elizabeth Warren because she’s not progressive enough or whatever. I think what people to judge is doing right now. His message is look there are a lot of you who look at Joe Biden and think he’s old. He’s been around too long. He’s kind of like stuck in the past. And you want somebody who’s younger and who is like you know next generation. But you also look at Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and think they’re moving the party too far to the left. Well I’m your bridge candidate. I I’m progressive but I’m not way off the charts. Come give me a look.
S6: Because you’re gonna go through this process and you’re going to keep you’re going to keep watch Joe Biden and thinking I don’t know. Can he really do this. I don’t know it’s. You can look at Warren and think. Can she really win Pennsylvania saying that she wants to ban fracking or she wants Medicare for all and we don’t have any choice about keeping our private insurance. I’ll be curious to see that how well he articulates that in the debate is the debate where people make those decisions. Yeah I think you’re right that these debates thus far have not benefited any of the lower tier candidates except for that one bump that Kamala Harris got very early right.
S7: Other than that they’ve sort of just cemented this status. Nobody’s really been able to move very much so right now I think if you were one of those lower candidates your job is to say keep your mind open OK. Yes the same three people have been top of the polls this whole time. They’re the best known candidates. It’s easier for them to get press. You as voters think you know them because you’ve seen them on your TV for all these years a totally makes sense. But I also know that a lot of you out there are hesitant about really ultimately casting a vote for one of these three. Right. There questions that you have.
S5: So keep your mind open keep a light on for us when say Amy thank you so much for joining me. You’re welcome. Amy Walter is the national editor of The Cook Political Report. She’s also the Friday host of The Takeaway. All right that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason de Leone Daniel Hewett And Mara silvers. As you watch the debate tweeted me give me your takes. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.