Why the stakes for Biden in this week's debates are so high

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential candidates forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 15, 2019.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a presidential candidates forum in Des Moines, Iowa, on July 15, 2019.Charlie Neibergall / AP file

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By Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann

WASHINGTON — This week brings us Round 2 in the Democratic presidential debates, and the central storyline is whether frontrunner Joe Biden still has zip on his political fastball after his first debate performance.

The good news for Biden: His poll numbers have snapped back to where they were before the first debates.

The bad news: It’s unlikely he can afford another rough outing, which would only increase the chatter that he might not be up for the rigors of a general-election fight against President Trump.

And if that happens, that could produce maybe the most destabilizing event so far in the 2020 Democratic race, creating openings for several other Dem contenders.

Remember, anyone can have a bad debate performance — just ask Barack Obama in 2012.

But if you’re Joe Biden and a Democratic Party that’s anxious about its prospects versus Trump, you can’t have two in a row.

That’s what’s on the line Wednesday, when Biden shares the debate stage with Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Julian Castro and others.

The night before — on Tuesday — we’ll see Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke.

Here’s how Trump has full sway over the GOP — even in the Senate

Over the last 48 hours, President Trump has viciously attacked Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and his majority African-American district.

And on “Meet the Press” yesterday, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., said he was disappointed at … Cummings.

Todd: Why do you think the president -- doing this, it's just stoking racial resentment, left and right. He's done it multiple times this month alone. He obviously thinks this is good politics inside the Republican Party. Do you think it's good politics inside the Republican Party?

Scott: Well, Chuck, let's look at what he said, all right, and why he did it. Congressman Cummings sat there and attacked our Border Patrol agents, all right? This is, this reminds me of what happened to soldiers coming back from Vietnam.

Todd: But that justifies a racial resentment tweet in response? Is that presidential leadership?

Scott: Well, look, I, I, look, I didn't do the tweets, Chuck. I can't talk about why he did what he did. But I'm very disappointed in the people, like Congressman Cummings, who is attacking Border Patrol agents that are trying to do their job, when the Democrats won't give them the resources to do it.

(That Cummings attack on Border Patrol agents? Earlier this month, Cummings blasted acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan over the conditions at facilities holding migrant children.

“What does that mean when a child is sitting in their own feces, can’t take a shower?” Cummings said. “Come on, man. What’s that about?”)

And if a Republican senator isn’t going to criticize Trump here, you have your answer as to whether there are the votes to convict the president in impeachment proceedings in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate. +

Tweet of the day

Trump says he’s replacing intel chief with loyal GOP congressman

Speaking of Trump having full sway inside his party, the president yesterday announced the resignation of National Intelligence Director Dan Coats — and said he’d replace him with Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas.

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Ratcliffe is a three-term congressman who served two years as a U.S. attorney. And these were the questions that Ratcliffe asked – plus statements he made – at last week’s Mueller hearings:

“Respectfully, Director, it was not the special counsel's job to conclusively determine Donald Trump's innocence or to exonerate him. Because the bedrock principle of our justice system is a presumption of innocence.”

“I agree with the chairman this morning, when he said, "Donald Trump is not above the law." He's not. But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law, which is where Volume 2 of this report puts him.”

“What determination did the special counsel office make about whether the Steele dossier was part of the Russian government efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election?... I want to find out if Russia interfered with our election by providing false information through sources to Christopher Steele about a Trump conspiracy that you determined didn't exist.”

“The special counsel did not charge Carter Page with anything, correct?”

2020 Vision

So Harris doesn’t want to abolish private insurance after all? Ahead of this week’s debates,Kamala Harris put forward a health-care proposal on Monday that would move every American into a Medicare-for-All system within 10 years, per NBC’s Vaughn Hillyard

But the plan also allows private insurers to offer competing plans, as well as supplemental insurance options — as long as the commercial plans meet the care standards of the government plan, Hillyard adds.

“I think what she’s saying is if the private sector can add value, then power to them,” said Andy Slavitt, who served as acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Obama Administration. “She’s leaving room for innovation, but she’s also saying there ought to be a pretty high bar.”

On the campaign trail today

Jay Inslee, in Michigan, releases another environmental policy and then tours Flint, Mich… And Elizabeth Warren holds a town hall in Toledo, Ohio.

Dispatches from NBC’s embeds

Bernie Sanders took a trip to Ontario, Canada with diabetic patients to purchase insulin.

NBC’s Gary Grumbach reports some of what Sanders told the crowd of patients with him: “At the end of the day, it is an embarrassment for those of us who are Americans. We love our Canadian neighbors and we thank them so much. But we should not have to come to Canada to get the medicine we need for our kids to stay alive. We can do that in America.”

Data Download: The number of the day is … $60,929

$60,929.

That’s the median income in Elijah Cummings’ 7th congressional district, according to 2017 American Community Survey 1-year estimates.

That’s slightly above the median income nationally (around $60,300, according to the same data). And, per Nate Silver, the district is the second wealthiest majority-black district in the country.

The Lid: Toto, we’re home

Don’t miss the pod from Friday, when noted how for Joe Biden, the first debates and their aftermath all seemed like a dream — with the 2020 Dem horserace pretty much were it was before those first debates.

ICYMI: News clips you shouldn’t miss

More than 100 House Democrats have now called for impeachment proceedings against Trump.

Alex Seitz-Wald previews the “virtual” caucus that Iowa Democrats will try for the first time next year.

Jared Kushner owns more than a dozen apartment complexes in Baltimore — and they’re not in tip-top shape.

Here’s Kamala Harris’ Medicare-for-All phase-in plan.

Can Beto O’Rourke capitalize on his second debate appearance? And what about Biden, who had a rough first performance?

Trump ahenda: Coats is off (the job)

Here’s our team’s story on Trump’s move to replace Dan Coats with Rep. John Ratcliffe as the Director of National Intelligence.

Trump friend and fundraiser Tom Barrack is under scrutiny by federal prosecutors.

The Fed is poised to cut rates despite low unemployment. Not everyone thinks that’s a good idea.

2020: Turmoil at the DCCC

The DCCC is in turmoil in a debate over diversity in its upper ranks.

The Washington Post looks at how Biden set the stage for sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine trafficking.

Priorities USA posted a big fundraising number.

Does Biden’s age matter?