Joe Biden’s troubles and four other BIG 2020 stories

Posted at 3:48 PM, Jun 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-30 17:48:03-04

With 218 days until the Iowa caucuses and a record number of Democratic candidates, the 2020 election is already in full swing. Every Sunday, I deliver the 5 BIG storylines you need to know to understand the upcoming week on the campaign trail. And they’re ranked — so the No. 1 story is the most important of the coming week.

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5. Is the Democratic establishment toothless?: If you watched the two nights of the first Democratic debate, one message came through strong and simply: The candidates who prospered were the ones advocating — loudly — for structural change not incrementalism.

Wrote Alex Burns and Jonathan Martin in Sunday’s New York Times:

“With moderate Democrats repeatedly drowned out or on the defensive in the debates, the sprint to the left has deeply unnerved establishment Democrats, who have largely picked the party nominees in recent decades. They fear that advocating a government-run health care system could alienate suburban and upper-income voters who are otherwise eager to eject Mr. Trump from office, while the most progressive immigration policies might turn off the working-class white voters who backed Mr. Trump after twice supporting former President Barack Obama.”

What fascinates me most about the paragraph above is this line (bolding is mine): “The sprint to the left has deeply unnerved establishment Democrats, who have largely picked the party nominees in recent decades.”

The 2016 election — on the Republican side — featured a renegade outsider destroying the chosen candidates of the GOP establishment, and then remaking the party in his own image. Who’s to say that’s not what we are witnessing within the Democratic Party in 2020 — particularly after the establishment favorite (Hillary Clinton) lost the presidency three years ago?

Joe Biden’s candidacy is the canary in the coal mine here. The former vice president is running unabashedly as the establishment choice for the Democratic nod — and promising a return to “normal” politics if elected. Is that a smart strategy in a party that wants radical, structural change?

4. Death watch begins: The confluence of the first debate being over and the end of the 2nd quarter of fundraising at midnight Sunday means that the end may be coming soon — or shortly — for some members of this record-settingly large Democratic field.

If you are, say Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan or New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand or former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, it might be tough to justify staying in the race much longer if a) you are struggling to raise money and b) there’s no movement in the polls.

All three of those candidates qualified for the first round of debate but didn’t do much to get people excited or draw attention. The question of fish or cut bait will start to get asked more and more often of these candidates — not to mention the four who didn’t even qualify for the debate stage either night.

Maybe they hold out until CNN’s debate late next month. Or try to run a shoe-string operation through the summer, in hopes of catching fire when people return after Labor Day. But, man, that is a heavy lift.

3. July Fourth is for politics!: While you’re sitting in your (or someone else’s) pool chowing on a hot dog and sipping a beer — or a diet Coke — think of the two dozen candidates running for president, and how they don’t get to just chillax (do people say that anymore?) on the Fourth.

Iowa alone will play host to three major 2020 candidates on Independence Day. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke will be in the state and, among other things, attend the reading of the Declaration of Independence in — wait for it! — Independence, Iowa. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is going to an ice cream social in Ames. (Delicious!) And California Sen. Kamala Harris will be in Iowa, too — barbecuing!

New Hampshire will gets its share of attention too, with Gillibrand and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney touring the Granite State on Thursday.

Of course, President Donald Trump’s big Fourth of July celebration in Washington is expected to draw the lion’s share of attention. Trump has reportedly been intimately involved in the planning of the day’s event — and is clearly been looking toward it for some time.

“HOLD THE DATE!” he tweeted in February. “We will be having one of the biggest gatherings in the history of Washington, D.C., on July 4th. It will be called ‘A Salute To America’ and will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. Major fireworks display, entertainment and an address by your favorite President, me!”

2. Now what for Kamala?: Harris, the California senator, was utterly impressive in Thursday’s debate — commanding a stage and looking more presidential than anyone else on it. (The one off-note was Harris’ ongoing struggle to settle on a coherent answer on whether she supports abolishing the private health insurance industry.)

The question for her and her campaign is: Now what? Her campaign reported raising more than $2 million in just the first 24 hours after the debate. (The average contribution was $30, according to the campaign.) Were they able to continue that fundraising momentum all the way through today — the final day of the second filing period (April 1-June 3)? And, if so, how much of a financial boost will Harris reap?

Polling has been scarce post-debate — and might stay that way with lots of people away for the July Fourth holiday. When polls do come out, how much has Harris moved up? And, if it’s a significant bump — putting her in similar space to Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — how does she maintain or build on that bump?

Remember that Harris got lots of positive attention for her campaign announcement. But, that buzz faded as she struggled to find ways to build on it over the next few months. Her campaign can’t let that happen again.

1.  Biden’s got an out-of-touch problem: The former vice president looked shaky in his first debateof the 2020 campaign on Thursday in Miami. He seemed totally unprepared for Harris’ attack on his record on busing, and, rather than empathize with her, he tried to make a technical argument that fell flat.

But it’s not just Biden’s debate performance that has to be concerning to his supporters. His comments about segregationist Sen. James Eastland — and subsequent defense of those comments — landed with a thud. And, over the weekend, his attempt to show how far the country has come on gay rights by saying — at a fundraiser in Seattle — that five years ago a “gay waiter” could be openly mocked without anyone batting an eye felt tin-eared.

Add it all up and you get the start of a damaging narrative for Biden: That he is a man out of time, that the current Democratic Party has run past him. Compounding that problem for Biden? He’s likely going to have to wait until the next debate — late next month in Detroit (and sponsored by CNN) to change that perception.