There are those of us who did not watch the second set of Democratic debates. At some point, one day, nineteen of these twenty people will be gone. They’ll return to whatever it was they were doing. Twelve years ago people talked seriously about Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich for president. Now, no one knows why. Four years ago Jeb Bush was inevitable. So was Hillary Clinton. Nothing is inevitable, and the early debates, long before the first primaries and caucuses, don’t matter a whole lot. The obscure shine and then disappear. And the debates can be absurd. CNN handled the second set of Democratic debates and did what they could to make their two nights of debates seem important, but they may have made things worse.
That’s what Megan Garber argues here:
“Tonight: a fight for the heart of the party! Senator Bernie Sanders, determined to seize his second chance at the nomination… going head-to-head with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Longtime friends fighting for the same cause – and the same voters!”
That was the introduction to the compilation video CNN aired on Tuesday evening, just before the network’s Democratic primary debate started… It included lightning-round bios of the 10 participating candidates, and shots of some of those candidates pumping their fists in the air. And a jubilant musical score, and, at one climactic moment, a video of an American flag, swaying poetically in the wind.
The melodrama, it would turn out, was fitting. Throughout the debate, the first of a two-night doubleheader set at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, the event’s moderators – Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon – did what the network’s trailer suggested they would: They asked questions that might turn this fight for the heart of the party into a plain old fight.
And that was embarrassing:
One of their questions: “Senator Warren, you make it a point to say you’re a capitalist. Is that your way of saying you’re a safer choice than Senator Sanders?” Another: “Congressman Ryan, are Senator Sanders’s proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into the country illegally?” Another: “Congressman O’Rourke, you live near the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso and disagree with Mayor Buttigieg on decriminalizing the border crossings. Please respond.”
CNN wanted sparks to fly, but Garber thinks that might have been a bad idea:
Debates are competitions, yes. They are spectacles, certainly. And the Democrats have noteworthy differences in their policy positions and their political orientations. But there is a revealing absurdity to CNN’s repeated attempts to reduce a ten-person event to a series of highly targeted duels. The moderators might have asked the candidates about health care, and immigration, and gun safety, and racial inequality, and climate change, but mostly they asked the candidates about one another. The result was cyclical, and cynical: Here were matters of life and death, framed as fodder for manufactured melees.
That seemed to be the plan:
As the debate wore on, candidates’ individual discussions of policy proposals were often cut short (“Your time is up!” was a common refrain among the moderators); petty squabbles, however, proved less beholden to the rigid rules of the clock. “I want to bring in Governor Hickenlooper,” Tapper said at one point. “I’d like to hear what you say about Senator Warren’s suggestion that those onstage not in favor of Medicare for All lack the will to fight for it.”
It was not a question so much as an invitation – to battle, to squabble, to make the kind of news that is full of sound bites.
Garber, however, sees a reason that this happened:
Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, talks often about his love of sports, and has discussed the ways CNN has incorporated the particular logic of ESPN into its coverage of electoral politics. (Zucker, discussing – defending – CNN’s treatment of the 2016 presidential campaign: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”)
Today, as it becomes clear how few of the previous election’s lessons have been learned in time for the one that rapidly approaches, there is an aptness to the idea that CNN would, once again, take refuge in the easy symmetries of an athletic competition. And there is a thudding inevitability to the notion that the network would find new ways to insist that politics is, above all, a sporting event: high in drama, low in stakes.
Dan Froomkin sees that too:
Yes, the questions were idiotic, largely based on Republican talking points, and designed purely to inflict damage. Yes, the format was a total disaster, with moderators constantly cutting off responses. And yes, there was an aggressive but entirely unacknowledged shilling for a centrist agenda.
But it’s more than that. It’s about CNN, and journalism, and what qualifies as political debate today, and, ultimately, the debasement of the single most important political medium in the world to a point where it creates, sustains, and protects the kind of vacuous, violent, circus atmosphere in which people like Donald Trump thrive and democracy suffers.
He cites David Dayen saying this:
It would give Tapper and his other moderators too much credit to say that their relentless right-wing framing of the questions was animated by a desire to protect the insurance industry and the border patrol. But that’s not really it. CNN has no politics. CNN has no understanding of politics or policy. … The CNN debate was an inevitable by-product of turning news into an entertainment and cultural product.
Entertainment industry morons only understand how to stage television through the lens of forcing conflict. The questions weren’t really prompts as much as they were invitations to fight.
So it comes down to this:
The empty suits at CNN trying to create “matchups” and “drama” have corrupted us all, as much as anything else in politics.
Jonathan Bernstein sees the same thing:
Those contentious questions have superficial appeal because they appear to get to what separates the candidates. And they promise fireworks, with candidates forced to argue. But in reality, invitation-to-fight questions tend to emphasize the differences that the moderators select, differences which may or may not be substantively important ones. It leads the debate to focus on areas of internal candidate differences, leaving policy areas where they agree irrelevant – even if those areas are important, and contain real disputes with the other party.
Ashley Feinberg adds this:
The moderators peppered the candidates with questions that were evidently designed to produce bad answers in the short format. Question after question was framed up from the ideological perspective of a Heritage Foundation intern or otherwise crafted as a gotcha to generate a 15-second clip for Republican attack ads down the line.
Froomkin notes that Feinberg “translated” CNN’s questions to clarify what was being asked. Why do you hate the middle class? Why are you betraying unions? What words would you like Donald Trump to quote when he attacks you and immigrants in the same breath? Which candidates do you think are too far left? Are you too weak to do wars? Are you too young, or is Bernie Sanders too old?
And there’s Vox’s Aaron Rupar:
Though no Republicans were physically onstage on Tuesday night in Detroit, it too often seemed they were living rent-free inside the moderators’ heads.
And then Froomkin adds this:
I happened to read the Kirkus Review of New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik’s forthcoming book, Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America. His thesis is that for Trump, cable TV news, with its “constant fear and passion” and need to “agitate their viewers, not settle them,” was a perfect fit.
You thought Fox News was the enemy? It is. It corrupts small minds. But CNN may be doing more damage in the long run.
Perhaps so, but Matthew Yglesias argues that this was never going to work:
The Democratic National Committee was so determined to avoid any allegations of rigging the 2020 nominating process that they agreed to open the campaign season with debate lineups set essentially by random.
The bar for qualifying was set extremely low, so as to include conventional politicians who are nowhere in the polls (Tim Ryan) and people who are nowhere in the polls and also have no business participating in a presidential campaign at all (Marianne Williamson). Sideshow candidacies like those of Tulsi Gabbard and Bill de Blasio were put formally on a par with heavy hitters like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Nobody knows who John Delaney is but he somehow seemed to be the center of attention in night one.
While the 2016 GOP handled a large field by dividing the debates into a main stage versus an undercard debate, in 2020 the Democrats just split the candidates up randomly. Then by the luck of the draw, Joe Biden dodged both Warren and Sanders twice in a row. So despite all the debating, we haven’t actually seen the debate that is at the center of the argument inside today’s Democratic Party.
That would be Biden versus Warren and Sanders – the careful versus the bold – without the useless hanging around pretending that they mattered – but Yglesias says that CNN did make thing worse anyway:
The producers of the two-night debate series clearly decided that the main theme of the story they wanted to tell was “moderates versus progressives.”
A proven effective way of doing this, used on both nights, was to select out particular unpopular provisions from Bernie Sanders’ proposed massive overhaul of the health care system and ask candidates whether they’d support them. That forces candidates to either embrace unpopular ideas, or else get on the wrong side of left-wing activists. It also encourages the candidates to fight with each other. All in all, it very much succeeded as television drama especially because polls show that Democratic primary voters are in fact very interested in health care policy.
In the real world, however, this is not at all how policy gets made.
In the real world things are messy:
Even if you make some rather utopian assumptions about Democrats’ prospects for picking up senate seats in 2020, the limiting factor on the ambition of health care legislation is going to be moderate Democrats in congress. It’s simply not possible for a hypothetical O’Rourke administration to enact laws that Amy Klobuchar (who is far from the most conservative Democrat in the field) opposes, so the differences on health care between O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren on health care can be informative but don’t actually tell us much directly about how policy would change under their administrations.
And yet the presidency is a very important office. The debates just didn’t feature much discussion of the specific ways in which it’s important. Foreign and national security policy was relegated to brief segments at the end of both debates, and not linked in any clear way to the main narrative the hosts were driving. We didn’t learn anything about the candidates’ approaches to staffing the executive branch — which in practice is where the progressives vs moderates split likely makes the most difference – or about their thinking on judicial nominations. The Warren and Sanders online fandoms have been waging a weeks-long knife fight over the theory that the two progressive contenders have contrasting social visions of how change happens, an idea that was totally absent from the debate stage. Nobody asked about the Federal Reserve or discretionary regulatory policy or any of the other things the president actually does.
But we learned a lot about hypothetical health care plans!
That is, we didn’t learn much, but Yglesias says that things will be better when the field shrinks:
Starting with the third debate, the DNC is going to set a higher bar for who qualifies and all the qualifying candidates will be on the stage together. We don’t yet know exactly who is going to make the cut. But we know Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, Buttigieg, Booker, and O’Rourke plus potentially one or two others will be up there.
That will allow the main candidates to actually argue with each other, which would be the purpose of a debate. Biden has a strong argument that Barack Obama was a good president and Democrats should carry on in his footsteps by nominating his VP. Sanders and Warren have both become major stars by mounting strong moral and intellectual critiques of the Obama trajectory. Others chart a middle course and bring some youth and diversity to the table that Biden lacks. That’s going to be a good debate!
What we watched over these two nights was… not quite that.
It was only this:
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. delivered a steadfast defense of his moderate policies in the Democratic primary debate on Wednesday, striking back at a familiar adversary, Senator Kamala Harris, but facing intensifying attacks on his record from liberal rivals including Senator Cory Booker and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary.
That’s the summary of the week’s second debate from the New York Times’ Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, followed by this detail:
Mr. Biden, the leading candidate in the Democratic presidential race, entered the debate under pressure to articulate a more forceful rationale for his campaign and turn back attacks from his fellow Democrats, after failing to do so in his clash with Ms. Harris in the first debate in June.
In a handful of moments, Mr. Biden did just that, delivering pointed critiques of Ms. Harris and other challengers. But it was unclear by the end of the forum whether he was any closer to allaying liberals’ reservations about his candidacy, or inspiring a Democratic Party that is eager to defeat President Trump but has shifted to the left in the years since Mr. Biden served as vice president under Barack Obama. Though he may have won sympathy from Democratic voters for absorbing so many blows, he did not deliver a commanding performance to reclaim firm control of the race.
And in a sign of the party’s drift, Mr. Biden was repeatedly forced to defend not only his own record but also was questioned sharply about policies of Mr. Obama on issues such as immigration and trade.
In short, as CNN had hoped, this was personal:
In the opening moments of the debate, Mr. Biden took particular aim at Ms. Harris, accusing her of peddling “double talk” on health care and insisting that a range of liberal plans to displace the private health insurance system were too disruptive and too costly. He chided Ms. Harris for her proposal of a decade-long transition to a version of single-payer health care, urging voters to be skeptical “anytime somebody tells you you’re going to get something good in 10 years.”
“My response is: Obamacare is working,” said Mr. Biden, who has proposed the creation of an optional, government-backed health insurance plan.
Ms. Harris, on defense for the first time against Mr. Biden, insisted that her plan would do far more than his to ensure universal coverage: “Your plan, by contrast,” she retorted, “leaves out almost 10 million Americans.”
Yet by the end of the debate, Mr. Biden was besieged, attacked from all sides on a plethora of subjects including health care, immigration, trade, criminal justice, climate change, women’s rights and the war in Iraq. As he did at times in the first debate, he cut some of his answers short and stumbled over lines. And he flashed his impatience with rivals, like Mr. Booker and Ms. Harris, who he said were harrying him over events that occurred “a long, long time ago.”
Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, must have been grinning by then, but not everyone was pleased with how this was going:
At several early moments in the debate, some candidates onstage exhorted Democrats to keep their attention on President Trump and the Republican Party, and especially on their hardline immigration policies and efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. As Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris battled over the idea of “Medicare for all,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand trained her fire on Republicans whose “whole goal is to take away your health care.”
In the midst of another Biden-Harris duel, midway through the debate, Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado erupted in impatience with the two of them for once again “debating what people did 50 years ago with busing” – the subject of Ms. Harris’s searing confrontation with the former vice president in June.
“Our schools are as segregated today as they were 50 years ago,” Mr. Bennet said. “We need a conversation about what’s happening now.”
And in an extended, contentious discussion of immigration, several Democrats tried to shift attention away from their own disagreements and toward the policies of the Trump administration.
“We can no longer allow a white nationalist to be in the White House,” said Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, adding, “We have to make America what it’s always been: a place of refuge.”
But no one was listening to them:
The most protracted clashes of the evening concerned criminal justice and immigration, and put several candidates besides Mr. Biden on the defensive. Attempting to pre-empt liberal attacks on his immigration record, Mr. Biden went on offense against Mr. Castro – the most vocal advocate for liberal immigration policy in the Democratic field – noting that he could not recall the former San Antonio mayor criticizing the Obama administration’s border policies when he was serving in the cabinet.
“If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back; it’s a crime,” said Mr. Biden, rejecting Mr. Castro’s plan to decriminalize illegal immigration.
Mr. Castro shot back that “it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t,” and added that the only element missing in border policy is “politicians who have some guts.”
“I have guts enough to say his plan doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Biden retorted.
Jeff Zucker must have been in seventh heaven by then. This was ratings gold – if anyone was watching. Some of us weren’t. The news summaries and quick clips were enough. This was unpleasant and may not have mattered much at all, or it may not have mattered at all.
Gail Collins captures the absurdity here:
So, who won the Democratic debates?
My vote is for Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Sure they were both on Day 1, but nobody on Day 2 came close.
Unless you figure that Joe Biden triumphed by failing to fall down. Some of his answers might have been a bit muddled, and he sort of faded off after the first hour. But expectations were so low, that was like clearing a high hurdle.
Everybody looked forward to his meeting with Kamala Harris, who had tortured him so effectively in Debate 1. “Go easy on me, kid,” Biden told her when they shook hands. It was either typical nice-guy Joe or yet another moment of Not Getting It by a former vice president who doesn’t know you don’t call a female member of the U.S. Senate “kid.”
But don’t expect much:
Twenty candidates over two days and only a handful of them had any real business being on the stage. Listening to Bill de Blasio rant and preen, the nation got a good hint of why no mayor of New York has ever been elected president. Harris totally failed to live up to expectations, and sort of floundered on the health care front.
The star of the first night was Warren. (“We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness.”) As a result, some Biden backers are talking of recruiting her as their vice-presidential nominee. This is a problem both for those who believe Warren deserves to be first and those who believe a national ticket should ideally include at least one person under the age of seventy.
And that’s a worry:
We’ve still ten more debates to go. The next round is scheduled for September, in a week that begins with Grandparents Day and ends with a full moon. Perhaps Warren, Biden and Sanders will show the audience pictures of their grandchildren while Pete Buttigieg will suggest that he is young enough to be one of them… and then comes the full moon.
Bad things happen on the night of the full moon. But the nation is used to bad things happening now. And soon enough something will happen.