Column | This debate was a moderated mess
The latest Democratic presidential debate was disappointing. Not because the participants weren’t articulate – in fact, many of their answers were excellent – but because the DNC and the networks can’t seem to figure out how to conduct a meaningful competition that will actually help voters determine how the candidates differ on key issues.
Wednesday night’s debate in Atlanta was scattered. At times it seemed as if questions for each candidate were being randomly picked from a hat rather than coordinated in a way that would give each competitor a chance to speak about the most controversial topics. Ten candidates might be too many to have a meaningful debate, but four moderators, freelancing with no apparent coordination, only made it worse.
Consider the issue of climate change, viewed by many as one of the most serious problems facing the planet. It only came up when Mayor Pete Buttigieg mentioned it in answer to a question about farming, opening the door to a brief series of climate-related questions. Even then, only half the candidates were allowed to speak on this vitally important issue. Not a word about climate was solicited from Senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris or businessman Andrew Yang.
The questioning was conducted by Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell and Kristen Welker of NBC News, along with Ashley Parker of the Washington Post. Although they did an effective job of clock management and refereeing, they failed miserably in giving each candidate a chance to be heard. The issue of abortion and reproductive rights was debated by four senators – Warren, Booker, Klobuchar and Bernie Sanders – while the six other candidates were excluded. The topic of paid family leave was presented to only Klobuchar, Harris and Yang.
Real-time tweets from some viewers praised the four female moderators for bringing up, at long last, these two important matters. What a shame that the two questions were answered by so few participants.
Voting rights was discussed by five of the candidates. White nationalism was debated by only Yang and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. An interesting question about whether more Americans should participate in military service was asked, inexplicably, of only Sen. Warren – even though two recent veterans, Buttigieg and Gabbard, were standing, silently, nearby. Sen. Booker, for some reason, was the only candidate asked if he would tweet as much as Donald Trump.
“I’d like to go back to something I wasn’t included in,” said Booker after being ignored during a discussion about appealing to black voters. He quipped, “I’ve been one since I was 18.”
Clearly, with so many candidates it is difficult to give each equal opportunity. Warren, who got the most time, spoke twice as long as Yang, who received the least time. In fact, during the first half hour Warren was allowed to give five answers before Yang, Gabbard and businessman Tom Steyer had spoken a single word. But the greater failure was that some candidates were given obscure questions while being left out entirely on the major issues. Ashley Parker asked Yang if elected what would he say in a phone call to Vladimir Putin. What kind of question is that? To Yang’s credit his answer was far better than the question: “I’d say, ‘I’m sorry I beat your guy.’”
In her closing statement, Sen. Warren chided the moderators: “We should have talked about gun violence.” She was right. Despite recent shootings, and frequent criticism that the nation has a shamefully short memory about such horrors, the issue of guns was missing from the debate.
It’s unfortunate that the DNC rejected suggestions to devote one or more of the debates to a single topic such as climate change. Such an approach would at least ensure that the participants and moderators would stay on point, while viewers could make meaningful distinctions about the candidates’ views.
When it was over, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams praised his colleagues as he gushed that the debate “was superbly moderated,” adding, “these four should be permanent moderators.”
That’s not how I saw it. Apparently it wasn’t even Rachel Maddow’s view. “I’m just glad we survived,” she said, before calling it a night.