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Dems look for edge amid jam-packed presidential debate

This week the top 20 Democratic presidential candidates are facing off over two nights in Miami. It's the first official debate of the 2020 primary season. Special correspondent Jeff Greenfield talks with bipartisan strategists to learn what the candidates can do in such a big field, and joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss whether a debate held months before the first votes can make a difference.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This week the top 20 Democratic presidential candidates are facing off over two nights in Miami. It's the first official debate of the 2020 primaries. Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield talked with a bipartisan pair of strategists to learn what the candidates can do in such a big field and whether a debate more than seven months before the first votes are cast will make any difference at all.

  • Moderator:

    The candidates need no introduction.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    If you think this was the first broadcast presidential debate, think again. Back in 1948, Republican Governors Harold Stassen and Thomas Dewey sounded off on radio before the critical Oregon primary.

  • Moderator:

    "For the past few weeks, Oregonians have been participating in a red hot political campaign."

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And in 1960, before he sparred with Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy debated Texas Senator Lyndon Johnson at the Democratic convention.

  • John F. Kennedy:

    "I appreciate what Senator Johnson had to say. He made some general references to perhaps the shortcomings of other presidential candidates, but as he was not specific, I assume he was talking about some of the other candidates and not about me."

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    But over the decades, primary debates have radically changed: There are more of them, they begin earlier and earlier, and the number of contenders has exploded.

    This coming week, twenty, count 'em, twenty Democratic hopefuls will meet over two nights in Miami.

    But as candidates from New York to California, from Texas to Washington State, as an army of journalists descend on Miami for these debates, a question arises: with 10 candidates on the same stage at the same time, is that a debate?

  • Mike Murphy:

    Not a classic debate. You have a basically a joint appearance.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Mike Murphy has been a significant player in Republican politics going back more than thirty years.

  • Mike Murphy:

    There's still some of the same risk, but it's not a classic one or two, three way debate with real candidate on candidate conflicts. It's just not the nature of the beast with that many people.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    That's a view with bipartisan support. Robert Shrum's work with Democrats goes back nearly half a century. Along with Murphy, he runs a think tank at the University of Southern California; and agrees with Murphy that a huge debate field means a specific strategy for each contender.

  • Robert Shrum:

    So what's really important for everybody, they're going to look for a moment. They're going to look for a line, an opening, something that can capture people's attention get out and really work.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    These "moments" have become ingrained in political lore. There was Ronald Reagan's response when threatened with a microphone shutoff after his campaign had funded a 1980 GOP debate.

  • Ronald Reagan:

    "I am paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!"

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Or Ex-Vice President Walter Mondale's jibe at Senator Gary Hart in 1984 about his substance.

  • Walter Mondale:

    "When I hear your new ideas, I'm reminded of that ad, 'Where's the beef?'

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And sometimes, that need for a moment can turn bizarre. In 1972, when anti-poverty organizer Ned Coll ran for the Democratic nomination, he tried to dramatize urban poverty by brandishing a rubber rat.

    A "moment" can also be highly unwelcome, as when Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2011 forgot to remember what federal agencies he wanted to abolish

  • Rick Perry:

    "The Education, uh, the, uh… Commerce… And let's see. I can't, the third. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Or when Barack Obama flippantly "complimented' his rival.

  • Hillary Clinton:

    "I don't think I'm that bad."

  • Barack Obama:

    "You're likable enough, Hillary."

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    So as these twenty candidates come off the trail and into the debate hall, they and their advisors will be dealing with a raft of questions about strategy and tactics, when or if to criticize a rival, how to stand out in the crowd.

    I asked our two war room veterans to put on their "advisor" hats and offer some insights into how these candidates might approach these questions.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    I'm Joe Biden about to go into this debate. Give me the one thing I most have to remember to do and not to.

  • Robert Shrum:

    If you're Joe Biden the thing you most want to do in this debate is demonstrate vigor and command of the issues, because people assume that but given his age they want to make sure.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    OK. Next call's coming to you from Bernie Sanders. What's my goal?

  • Robert Shrum:

    I'd say your goal would be to look like a happy warrior instead of an angry warrior. And I would advise you not to attack Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden, at which point he would hang up the phone.

  • Mike Murphy:

    They've all got their own agenda beyond getting noticed and quote doing well. Mayor Pete has to show a little toughness. Does he take a generational poke at Bernie who's a much easier target than the beloved Joe Biden // So they all have a reason maybe to have a conflict minute with somebody because that's also the best way to make the media tape. Media wants conflict.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    But suppose one of these candidates does stand out from the crowd with a powerful argument, a powerful impression. Will that really make any difference to voters here in California or for that matter in most other states who won't actually be voting for eight months or more?

  • Robert Shrum:

    Probably not, although I think people are shopping, and so if you make a good impression that can stay with you.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    And Mike Murphy has one more piece of advice, borrowed from baseball. Don't go for the home run.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    You want to swing for the fences or you want to be a contact hitter?

  • Mike Murphy:

    Contact hitter. Swinging for the fences is running after risk. And there are a lot of debates. This isn't the only Super Bowl. So I think the best thing to do is get your moment where you can look at the camera, connect with people with something that is true about you, so you say it with confidence and strength, and relevant to them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And joining me now is Jeff Greenfield who will be watching the debates this week. Jeff, a crowd of 20. How they separate themselves out from the pack as you just laid out here. They're all going to be looking for these moments. How are they sure that they can get one?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Well that's one of the interesting questions about so large a field. The one thing I'm confident predicted is somewhere in these debates the lesser known candidates will complain that nobody's asking them any questions because there's no guarantee of equal time.

    And the other danger is if you rehearse a clever line too much and it sounds like something your advisers or consultants have come up with, it actually doesn't help you. And so it's a very very difficult challenge, particularly for the ones who were at one half of 1% in the polls.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And that cutoff line that's been decided by the DNC on the number of supporters you have, the amount of money you've been able to raise, to get you through, are those hurdles going to change over time to try to winnow the field down?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Yes they've already, the Democrats already said that in the later debates they're going to ratchet up the conditions to make it not just one of three but all three. But look, I have to say that you put more than four or five people on the same stage you're not having a debate as was mentioned in the piece. You're having, I don't know what, a cattle show and the idea of any kind of an exchange of views is difficult.

    Instead, you have the candidates looking at the strategy who will my up with? Sanders and Warren are not going to be able to face-off on who's the most progressive because they're on two different nights. And so it creates a whole bunch of difficult questions for any candidate and any candidate's staff to try to figure out.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Given that we're living in this time where everything is kind of Instagram or chopped down into social bits, how do we get to a point where we can say OK this is what this candidate's substance is about, this is that kind of, that's something that's in the body language something the nonverbal cue that makes me want to trust this human being?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    To me, part of the responsibility is on the moderators to ask questions that actually push a candidate to say something substantive about herself or himself.

    I would, for instance, be very interested in hearing Elizabeth Warren answer the question, if you think the wealth tax that you propose is such a good idea, how come almost every country that's tried it has abandoned it because it's too difficult.

    I think the Biden questions instead of the obvious ones,what did you mean by saying that you can work with James Eastland is to ask a broader question is that so many of the people that he cites and working with have literally not been in the Senate for 30 years and isn't this an indication that you may be past your prime?

    So it is up to the moderators in this very wide field to try to zero in, particularly on the more credible candidates and ask some tough questions about where they stand.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And finally, it matters more perhaps in our industry. But the idea that MSNBC was given the rights of this and C-SPAN and other networks were denied. Does that end up just reflecting our polarized society? Then Fox gets Republican debates in the future and Democratic debates go only to one channel?

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Look this is a it's an outrage to me that political party has ceded not a debate but an event to one network. And I hope this is something that is nipped in the bud.

    Again I've said many times that I think the Democrats are making a mistake in not going on Fox debate, to try to reach people who may be persuadable. But I think you're right. We've already seen the kind of polarization where you know if you're for Trump you're going to watch Fox if you don't like Trump you're going to watch MSNBC or CNN.

    It's not a healthy development in our media world and I hope to see some kind of reversal, particularly beginning with the Democrats saying, OK we're going to go on Fox and tell your audience why we think a lot of what you say about us is wrong.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right. Jeff Greenfield joining us from California. Thanks so much.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    Thank you.

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