WASHINGTON, D.C. — At last, Democratic voters will get the face-off many have been waiting for: Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren on the same presidential debate stage for the first time.
With that, a fork in the road is coming into view for the Democratic Party.
Only 10 candidates qualified for the Democrats’ September debate by the Wednesday deadline. ABC, the sponsoring network for the event, had already announced that would mean one night of debating, Sept. 12.
Two top candidates — the former vice president who is the front-runner, and the Massachusetts senator whose campaign has been gathering momentum — personify big choices Democrats face about what they stand for and how much change will be needed if they oust President Donald Trump.
Warren wants to shake things up, Biden wants to calm things down. She calls for tectonic changes in the U.S. economy and politics. He proposes more incremental reforms.
For many, Biden is the candidate of the head, with voters drawn not by passion, but by the belief he is their safest bet to beat Trump. For others, Warren is the candidate of the heart, drawing thousands of chanting fans to rallies who shrug off doubts about her electability.
With Warren rising steadily in polls to gain a place in the top tier of candidates — closing in on Biden and her rival on the party’s left, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — many Democrats foresee a Warren-Biden collision at the end of the primary election trail.
“Do Democrats want someone as radical — radical in a good sense — as Franklin Delano Roosevelt proposing fundamental change, or someone like Biden proposing normalcy or continuity,” asked Robert Kuttner, progressive author of a forthcoming book “The Stakes: 2020 and the Survival of American Democracy. “
Elaine Kamarck, a member of the Democratic National Committee who has not endorsed any candidate, said she believed Warren “is the one person in the race who could overtake Biden. I could see it going down to a two-person race.”
Democrats are a long way from that point. Biden still leads by double-digit margins in most polls. And it is hard to see how Warren can succeed unless Sanders, who still ranks second in most polls, fades.
DNC standards were more lenient for the June and July debates. Twenty candidates qualified and were split into two debates of 10 candidates each. In neither of the first two rounds did Biden and Warren get placed on the same stage.
For the September and October debates, the DNC toughened its qualifying requirements. That left all but 10 on the outside looking in. Beyond Biden, Warren and Sanders, Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker qualified, as did South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Housing secretary Julian Castro, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Andrew Yang, the tech entrepreneur.
As for Warren and Biden, despite their glaring differences, the two have some similarities: Both emphasize working-class roots, his in Pennsylvania, hers in Oklahoma. Both owe their prominence in part to the Obama administration, he as vice president, she as an adviser called in to set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Both are old enough — he 76, she 70 — that neither would have had much chance of running for president had it not been for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016.
But they bring to the 2020 campaign very different world views and goals: Warren is aiming not just to beat Trump but to rid the U.S. of structural inequities that she believes contributed to Trump’s rise.
Biden is aiming to focus Democrats’ energy on getting rid of Trump, calling for more incremental policy changes and a return to the normality of the Obama era.
Warren believes voters are broadly dissatisfied with the status quo; Biden that they are mostly terrified of another Trump term.
In a typical split between the two, both propose big changes in healthcare. But Warren supports replacing the current system with Medicare for all; Biden wants to improve on the Obama-era health reform, the Affordable Care Act.
The two have not been taking direct shots at each other, and it’s not clear they will do so on the debate stage together.
“Each one of them realizes that a shootout like that only helps Trump,” said former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Asked about debating Warren, Biden said Wednesday, “I’m just going to be me, and she’ll be her, and we’ll let people make their judgments. I have great respect for her.”