Matt Gorman The Democratic debates are a minefield. I couldn't be more excited to watch the explosions.

The Republicans I once worked for also had to argue with gadflies and I gritted my teeth as the Democrats enjoyed it. Now the tables have turned.
Image: Workers assemble the set before the Democratic presidential primary debates in Miami, Florida, on June 25, 2019.
Workers assemble the set before the Democratic presidential primary debates in Miami on June 25, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Matt Gorman, political strategist

I’ve spent the last few days envisioning this week’s Democratic debates, assisted by spending last weekend at a family reunion with 13 kids under the age of 10. Things got broken. Fights got started. Muffins were thrown across a room.

When you put that many nervous, energetic kids in one place all vying for attention, what ensues will inevitably be chaos. The Democratic debates, with 20 candidates all trying to make it onto somebody's radar, on Wednesday and Thursday can hardly be much different.

Trust me, as a Republican, I’m not complaining. It’ll be must-see TV for those who don’t have skin in this particular hunger game. But while it may be fun for us to watch the Democrats’ massive field shiv each other on national television, it’ll hurt each and every Democratic candidate in the long run.

In past years, every candidate had simple goals for the first debate of the primary: Introduce yourself, work through the inevitable nerves, and give yourself a performance to build on.

Those will not be the objectives for most of the 20 candidates taking the stage in Miami. Each man or woman behind the podium will get, tops, 8-10 minutes to speak during their night's two-hour debate, over a total of four hours. What they do with that time is sort of up to them, moderators' presences aside, but the objective for those not in the top tier of polling will be to do anything to capture some ephemeral post-debate “buzz” to hold voters' attention in the days to come.

To be blunt: Playing it safe will not be good enough.

Get the think newsletter.

Candidates such as Kirsten Gillibrand, Julian Castro and Bill deBlasio need to take some risks; they were placed on the edges of the stage because their candidacies are floundering. They are barely getting press attention now and they’re at a very real risk of missing the cutoffs for the next series of debates.

Their fire, then, will likely be trained at none other than Joe Biden (whether he is on the stage with them or not). Even before his self-inflicted controversy after invoking segregationist senators, he was primed to be the candidate with the biggest target on his back.

Biden is the walking embodiment of all that the Democratic Party has moved past in the last three years. He’s been in the public eye for the better part of four decades and was already on the wrong side of current Democratic primary voters on banking, crime and Anita Hill.

For everyone who is not Uncle Joe, the trick is to make him look both out of touch and unsteady on his feet. He, however, will need to risk the former to avoid getting pulled too far to the left — and he has to do it all while looking smart and capable.

All the while, Republicans like me will simply sit back, wait and smile.

I remember being on the other side quite well. I’ve watched the Republican presidential candidates for whom I’ve worked argue endlessly on a debate stage with gadflies, queried by moderators who are equally interested in the national spotlight. Both distractions forced my candidates into untenable positions on a variety of issues, providing our opponents with soundbites that would be played back endlessly in general election television ads.

Then, I gritted my teeth when Democrats sat back, took notes and clipped video to use in the fall. Now, I see exactly how much fun they must have been having.

This cycle, the massive Democratic primary field is the one giving Republicans like me fodder for the next 16 months. This large field — each one desperate for attention like the party’s proverbial middle child — is poised to bombard each other with attacks that will, at the very least, drag all candidates to the left and could even hobble their front-runners.

Questioning capitalism? Check. Medicare for All? Check. Open borders? Check. All of these ridiculous positions — and more — are practically required to seriously compete in a Democratic primary, yet they are all toxic to swing voters in a general election.

I get it: You need to win the primary before you win the general. But every pander to the far-left base in a debate hall is the centerpiece of another million-dollar Republican ad buy in Macomb County, Michigan.

And every last soundbite will be the foreseeable result of the Democratic Party letting cranks like Marianne Williamson and jokes like Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. — neither of whom has the slightest chance of winning — on a national stage alongside a former vice president and senators from the largest states in the country.

Unavoidable? Not in the slightest.

The Democratic National Committee was destined to screw up this process. After tilting the playing field toward Hillary Clinton in 2016, they were desperate to make the process seem open and transparent. They’re also desperate for money and wanted — nay, needed — to exploit small-dollar online fundraising.

Some party officials should have been willing to play bad cop for once and take responsibility for paring down the field through stricter criteria to solve this debate conundrum. Instead, they set their own party up for a debate this week that will look more like my family reunion than a nationally-televised event.

I, for one, will be tuned in and watching with glee. But if Joe Biden sees a muffin coming his way, he'd better duck.