Will Biden Skip the First Debate?


Will Biden Skip the First Debate?

Last week, Joe Biden, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020, decided not to attend the California Democratic Party convention. Many political operatives called it a shrewd move in light of the unfriendly reception received by a number of his fellow moderate hopefuls. Biden chose instead to attend the Human Rights Campaign's annual Ohio gala. One might wonder how the HRC decided that the best way to fight for human rights was to throw a fancy party, but Uncle Joe found their company preferable to that of the ever-larger progressive wing of his own party.

This week-end in Iowa is what’s being billed as the biggest campaign event of the race so far. Nineteen of the candidates Biden is running against will be there at the state party’s Hall of Fame dinner for the chance to speak to a crowd of some 1400 of the state’s opinion makers and power brokers. Joe Biden has declined the invitation to join the rest of the field for the evening, citing a previously scheduled obligation.

In both the mainstream media and on social media, some critics have taken to calling the former VP, ‘Hidin’ Joe Biden’, in reference to his absence at these high profile events. After all, there are twenty spots for the first debates scheduled for later this month on June 26 and 27. Nineteen contenders will be in Iowa and one won’t. It is no surprise then that this has led to some interesting speculation.

With only four days left for hopefuls to reach donor or polling thresholds needed to qualify for a place in the first debate, anonymous insiders and unnamed, but well-placed sources have begun to whisper that a different debate is occurring inside the top echelons of the Biden campaign. At issue is whether it suits the campaign to even take part in the early debates. Although the players on either side of this discussion and the arguments they are making are not known, one can certainly speculate as to the thinking within the campaign.

The first debate, hosted by NBC and airing on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo, will take place over two nights, with ten candidates taking the stage each night. Biden, like the rest, will only have about ten minutes to make his case, and, unlike the rest, as the front-runner, he can expect to spend much of that time answering criticisms leveled at him by others during the debate. That won’t leave him much opportunity to make his own pro-active case.

No one knows if the debate itself will run smoothly. Will it be ‘watchable’ or will it be boring? Will it be civil or will it devolve into a mud-slinging match? Witnessing ten people telling us how much they hate Donald Trump won’t really make for must-see TV and won’t do much to further the Democratic agenda. Nor will a discussion on impeachment. Ten folks all agreeing on something is not much of a debate. Even disagreement on the issue of Trump or his impeachment won’t have much upside as these are not the issues on which to animate a broader consensus or attract undecideds and independents.

For most of the candidates, the debate is an opportunity to let people get to know them. Biden is already well known, so the first few debates can’t promise the same level of upside for him. Most people already know where he stands, which is good because that familiarity is what he is selling. Changing his position, as he did recently on the Hyde amendment, expose him to charges of flip-flopping and serve to move him farther to the left, away from the votes in the middle that he will need in the general election. It could even be argued that more exposure at this point in the campaign is not necessarily a good thing. For a familiar figure, with decades of experience to point to, there is more danger of a detrimental performance or unwise comment than there is the likelihood of him being able to control the night’s narrative in his favor.

Biden doesn’t need the exposure. He doesn’t need to be part of what could be a boring or chaotic event. He doesn’t need to have most of the field attacking him and then having to waste limited time defending himself instead of focusing on his story the way he wants it told. Finally, as the front-runner, as what one could call the presumptive nominee, as the establishment candidate, does he really need to give the rest of the pack a legitimacy, an equal standing, by appearing on the same stage with them?

For these reasons, and more, it should surprise no one that there is talk of an entirely different approach, an approach guaranteed to give him much more attention than what some are shrewdly seeing as the less attractive alternative. While so many of his fellow rivals are fighting to be part of the debates, Biden and his campaign are considering forgoing the first, if not the first several, debates, altogether. Better, the thinking goes, to let the field winnow itself without his help. Consider the first few debates as play-in games not requiring his participation. Set himself apart with a bold show of strength. Focus the attention on him, and on this decision, rather than other inevitable criticisms or issues. Better to talk about his absence at the debate than his vote for the Iraq war, for instance.

Of course, skipping the debate opens up the door for some counter-programming. Imagine the debates live on NBC while Biden is having a chummy conversation with some obliging host on another network. It’s not that far-fetched. From the moment the Biden campaign announces its intention to skip the debate, the talk would be almost exclusively about Joe Biden. That’s not good for the others. They want the talk about themselves. It’s why they went to California. It’s why they are in Iowa right now. And it is exactly why Joe Biden may not be at that first debate.