Dear debaters: You don't need a 'breakout moment' to break through

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
From left: Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan, Julián Castro, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Jay Inslee and John Delaney before Wednesday's Democratic primary debate. (Photo: Brynn Anderson/AP)

First off, some quick impressions from last night’s opening Democratic debate.

· Beto O’Rourke speaks Spanish, sometimes just because. Also, he’s more compelling when he jumps on tables. He should leap on the lectern.

· When you first hear John Delaney speak, you think, “Hey, that guy sounds smart.” Then it becomes clear that you’ve encouraged him too much, and he’s never going to stop.

· Maybe New York mayors fare so poorly in national politics because they tend to be rude, smug and grating. Just a theory.

· From the placement of the candidates and the order of questions, it’s clear that NBC thinks most of these candidates are auditioning for Elizabeth Warren’s Cabinet. (Actually, after watching, I sort of thought that too.)

If you missed all this, or if you tried to watch but fell asleep playing “Candy Crush,” here’s the good news. The lineup for tonight’s second debate in Miami — thanks to the random selection process NBC wisely used instead of hosting “kiddie table” debates — looks a lot more interesting. It includes the most established candidates in this early going, along with some of what I think are the most intriguing challengers.

But if you’re still waiting for that big “breakout moment” the media keeps going on about, you’ll probably be disappointed.

We in the political media seem to be deeply invested in the “breakout moment” idea. One after another, commentators proclaimed this week that the only way to win a debate — especially if no one knows who you are — is to have a line that becomes a viral sensation, some exchange that wows the people watching at home.

But the truth is you can’t manufacture something like that, and if someone tells you to, you’re getting bad advice. At this early stage of a crowded campaign, there are subtler, more attainable ways to have success.

Before I explain, let me break down the candidates onstage tonight into three very rough categories.

The first are the titans — specifically, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, who represent two distinct ideological approaches, and who lead by a lot in just about every national poll. (Although I suspect that Sanders is about to find himself sucking air as Warren glides past.)

The second pairing, namely Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, represents what I’d call the celebrity set. Which isn’t to say they don’t have substance — they do — but rather that so far their status is based mainly on what they represent and all the media attention that follows them, rather than on any firm idea of how they might govern.

And the last group are the lesser-known candidates you might think of as Biden alternatives. You probably wouldn’t know who they were if they slammed into you at the supermarket checkout, and as long as Biden swallows up the space reserved for governing, moderate candidates in the traditional mold, that’s not going to change.

But if Biden falters in the coming months, then there may be room for someone you’ve not yet heard of to emerge as a contender.

As one of those candidates, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, put it to me when we talked this week, “There is no historical precedent that suggests that people who are leading the race now are going to win the race, and there’s plenty of precedent for the people who are in the low single digits now going on to ultimately win the race.” That is true.

According to all the cable TV and op-ed-page wisdom, the Biden alternatives are the candidates who most need some big breakout moment in order to have any chance at all. Which probably isn’t going to happen, for a bunch of reasons.

First of all, voters in the post-broadcast age are more jaded when it comes to the stagey one-liner. It may have worked in the 1980s, when the laugh track was still in vogue, but if Lloyd Bentsen stood up today and did his somber “You’re no Jack Kennedy” thing, a lot of the audience would probably roll their eyes at the stagecraft.

And even if you did have the perfect line of attack for a viral video, it would be a whole lot easier to deploy in a debate with three or four candidates, rather than 10. A debate like this one is so chaotic, so unpredictable, that it’s impossible to know beforehand whom you’ll actually end up debating with, or about what.

For all the talk about breakout moments, the lines that really stand out these days tend to be the inverse of a planned shtick — that is, something a candidate says or does that reveals a side of him or her you weren’t supposed to see.

A good example of this is Barack Obama’s line in New Hampshire in 2008, when he cracked that Hillary Clinton was “likable enough.” That one condescending line seemed like a throwaway to a lot of us men watching the debate, but it hit women like a steel beam, and it helped revive Clinton’s campaign.

So if you’re one of these unknown candidates, what are you supposed to do? If you can’t “break out” in the debate, how do you break into the conversation?

My advice would be to chill out. These early debates aren’t really make-or-break. That’s media hype.

The fact is that we’re in the very first leg of a very long race, with many debates to come. And at this stage of a campaign, a lot of candidates haven’t even figured out what they want to say or what’s going to resonate.

I think back to 2004, which was the last time Democrats vied to unseat an incumbent president. In the opening chapter of that campaign, Howard Dean set out to run as a fiscal reformer, and John Edwards as a NASCAR-loving Southerner. It took many months on the trail for Dean to find his antiwar voice, and for Edwards to discover his “two Americas.”

By the end of that campaign, Dean had ignited an online movement, and Edwards was on the ticket as John Kerry’s running mate.

The real imperative for a Biden alternative, at this point, isn’t to upend the order of things all at once with some brilliant performative moment; it’s simply to introduce yourself to the nation and come off as a viable potential president. Then you can hang around, hone your message and hope that, if Biden disappoints, the voters will give you a second look.

This, incidentally, is exactly how Biden inched his way to center stage. He didn’t generate any groundbreaking, turn-the-ship-around moment during the 2008 debates, when he was never considered a genuine contender. Instead, he performed quietly and ably in all of them, and his fellow Democrats, Obama among them, took notice.

“Being able to get your foot in the door and have people see your candidacy as plausible — that would be a great outcome,” Bennet told me this week during a break from his debate prep. That also is true.

Plausibility doesn’t make for great TV, and it doesn’t inspire a lot of YouTube views or cable mentions. But if I were one of the lesser-known candidates onstage tonight — a Bennet or a John Hickenlooper or a Kirsten Gillibrand — that’s the main bar I’d be hoping to clear.

And maybe say something nice about Warren. You know, just in case.


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