You’d be excused if you tuned into Thursday night’s debate expecting to see some version of a long-awaited Joe Biden versus Elizabeth Warren cage match. Senior aides for a bunch of other campaigns certainly are, judging by their hushed rumor-sharing and -gathering on Wednesday in the enormous lobby of a downtown hotel where multiple candidates are staying here in Houston. Plus, just look at this week’s headlines: “Joe Biden to Argue in Upcoming Debate That ‘We Need More Than Plans,’” reported CNN, previewing “a potential line of attack” on Warren. “Biden Aims to Use Debate to Question Warren’s Corporate Work,” wrote Bloomberg.
And it would make some intuitive sense: Biden remains the front-runner, Warren is on the rise, and they do have a long, complicated history together, starting with their decades-old Capitol Hill clashes over bankruptcy law, swerving into potential détente when Biden wanted Warren as his running mate if he ran in 2016, and leading up to the last few weeks of escalating hype from commentators eager to see them, and their contrasting visions, onstage together for the first time.
But this latest news and commentary cycle is setting expectations unrealistically high for an orchestrated one-on-one clash — the kind we saw between Biden and Kamala Harris in June. It’s a neat lesson in how a 2020 narrative takes shape.
Earlier this week, members of Biden’s team spoke with beat reporters who’d inquired about his debate posture, and they offered mostly innocuous talking points, primarily about how Biden intends to run his own race and stick to his own message. But, buried in there, they did include some lines that could point to a few debate-night contrasts. For one, they noted that Biden will (again) likely say that we need more than plans — a line of his that has always, and understandably, been read as a shot at Warren, since having specific policy plans is key to her campaign, messaging, and political identity. They also said more expensive plans are not necessarily more progressive ones — another possible Warren-aimed line of argument that’s in keeping with Biden’s central messaging. And they mentioned that candidates should be transparent about their work before taking office — a final possible knock on Warren, given questions she’s faced about her pre-politics corporate legal work.
It’s no secret that Warren’s rise has unsettled members of Biden’s inner circle, and that both campaigns can envision a world where they eventually face off directly in the race. But as eager as Biden allies are to take Warren on at some point, more were doubly eager to “pump the brakes,” in the words of one adviser, once the Biden-to-attack-Warren narrative dug in further than ever Tuesday.
Why? Well, for one, not all of the potential lines of attack that have been singled out are necessarily Warren-specific, especially the ones Biden’s already been saying on the campaign trail. His knocks on the expense of “progressive” plans could be read just as easily as a hit on Bernie Sanders, who remains a top-tier candidate no matter how you slice the numbers, and his points about transparency in pre-Washington careers could also be aimed at Harris, whose prosecutorial record has been a focus of Biden’s in the past.
But, more importantly, there’s zero doubt that the contrast of visions between Biden and Warren will already play out on the stage, no matter what; their messages are so different that the distance between them will be clear the second they open their mouths. No preplanned fireworks — say, surprise invocations of 1981 op-eds or callouts of 1970s-era busing positions — needed. Both sides are also expecting the ABC News moderators to push them up against each other, especially after the network’s political newsletter on Wednesday interpreted Warren saying “I’m someone who will fight for your family, I’m not here to fight for the rich and the powerful” as evidence that she was targeting Biden (headline: “Warren Puts Biden on Warning on Eve of Next Debate”).
Meanwhile, neither Biden nor Warren has an obvious long-term political incentive to spring a pre-organized, oppo-research-backed attack on the other. Such a maneuver would be a significant strategic break for Biden, who’s run the traditional front-runner playbook and only called out opponents by name when hit first (like with Cory Booker at the last debate). The same goes for Warren, who’s focused primarily on her own story while introducing herself to Democratic voters as a vision-focused candidate, and who has little reason to want the race to turn into a one-on-one matchup based on personal records so long before Iowa votes.
As the hype has grown in recent days — a big red banner atop CNN’s website announced “Biden and Warren finally go head-to-head” on Thursday morning — Warren has consistently demurred when asked if she will use the debate to attack Biden. “I’m not here to criticize any other Democrat, or anyone else’s campaign,” she said over the weekend in New Hampshire when asked about him. And Biden allies’ frustration has mounted with the growing expectation that the former VP will be the aggressor.
That line of analysis, one of his advisers groused to me, is a “disservice to voters and the conversation.”
“Despite this being the most complex Democratic field in generations — if not ever — the press and political watchers on Twitter keep oversimplifying the race, spending more resources on speculative hot takes and predictions — glaring evidence that the profound lessons of 2016 remain unlearned — or reducing coverage of this whole cycle to either hyping any perceived miscue by Biden or depicting the primary as though it’s only about Biden versus one other candidate,” he said. “We saw this kind of exaggeration surrounding one other candidate take hold after the first debate, with Kamala Harris, and then for the past several weeks with Elizabeth Warren.”
The truth is that a candidate may, after all, try to take inspiration from Harris’s surprise attack on Biden, which remains the most memorable moment from the first eight-plus hours of debates, and which temporarily boosted Harris in the race. But it probably won’t be Biden or Warren — who will likely be locked in their own conversation about their competing visions of the world. It likely won’t be Sanders, or even Harris either. For most of the field, the whole game now is getting enough attention to raise enough money to stay alive. There’s little doubt that the contours of Thursday’s debate will already be shaped by the ideological gulf between Biden and Warren. For an attack to really break through, it will have to come from somewhere unexpected.