American politics has worshipped at the altar of the candidate debate since Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas verbally sparred in debates before the 1858 U.S. Senate election in Illinois.
A century later came the 1960 presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. Sixteen years later Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford held debates, and we’ve been stuck with this tradition of dubious value ever since then.
After Tuesday’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, maybe it’s time to end this tradition. Jim Geraghty:
After [Tuesday] night’s debate of angry shouting and incoherent crosstalk, it is time for the Democratic National Committee to recognize that its system and design for this cycle’s primary debates is failing just about everyone, and for the Republican National Committee to take notes for next cycle.
How many candidates entered this cycle thinking, “Sure, I’m not well known nationally, but once I’m up on that debate stage, people will realize what a superstar I am, and the donations to fuel our campaign will roll in”? The problem is that it is extremely difficult to stand out on a debate stage with ten people, and even harder when the party holds two debates over consecutive nights to accommodate the twenty candidates who qualified. Candidates such as Tim Ryan, Michael Bennet, Jay Inslee, and Steve Bullock barely made impressions upon the audience, much less used the debates as a steppingstone to serious contention.
The DNC faces a catch-22 situation: The more they try to make a debate process fair to lesser-known candidates, the more an increased number of lesser-known candidates will qualify for the debates, making it harder for all lesser-known candidates to stand out and rise in the field.
Most of these candidates seemed inexplicably oblivious to the fact that their debate answers sounded a lot like everybody else’s debate answers. The point of a debate is to draw contrasts, even though that is apparently upsetting to some news columnists who complained about “divisive questions.” The purpose of a debate is not to assure nervous Democrats that all of their candidates are terrific and that everyone in the party gets along and mostly agrees with each other.
One of the reasons that the Las Vegas debate was so refreshing and almost riveting is that for once, the candidates spoke bluntly about why they didn’t think the others should be nominated. Elizabeth Warren really believes that Mike Bloomberg was a creep to his female employees and offers far too little contrast with Trump. Mike Bloomberg really believes that Bernie Sanders is a Communist and unelectable. Amy Klobuchar really believes that Pete Buttigieg is insufferably smug and unsubtly condescending to everyone else around him.
For most of these debates, just as two Democrats started exploring a contrast that might actually be useful to undecided primary voters, someone would jump in and say, “this kind of infighting is just what Donald Trump and the Republicans want to see” — trying to play the role of the mature peacemaker, the “only adult in the room” pose that Barack Obama loved so much. Cory Booker was the worst offender, believing he could advance to the top tier by repeatedly arguing that leaders of a diverse party representing a variety of viewpoints should never disagree in public.
The DNC’s system of ten candidates per night meant that the top-tier candidates couldn’t believe they were sharing the stage with Marianne Williamson talking about “dark spiritual forces” and obscure members of Congress such as John Delaney. This cycle we’ve seen jokes that the debates need a “play-in round” such as the NCAA basketball tournament, a preceding contest that determines the lowest-ranked seed in the main tournament of 64 teams. Maybe when there are 20 candidates, something like that makes sense. This entire cycle, the DNC flinched when accused of being unfair and hesitated to tell candidates and their supporters a hard truth about campaigning and life: You have to earn your place on stage.
As this cycle’s debates went on, it became clear that the moderators were not interested in ensuring that each candidate got roughly the same amount of time. I believe the greatest disparity came in the second debate, where Joe Biden spoke for 21 minutes and John Hickenlooper, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson spoke for 8.7 minutes. An imbalance like this is fundamentally unfair but also a recognition of a cold, hard fact: The audience is just not as interested in what the longshots have to say.
The presence of the audience in the auditorium or hall is a mistake, as some of us have been emphasizing throughout this process. It creates all kinds of bad incentives, most notably to aim for applause lines instead of answering the question, and an attempt to get your supporters in the hall to cheer as loudly and wildly as possible, no matter how anodyne the answer. The presence of a large audience also allows for hecklers and protesters — one more discordant note to disrupt whatever rhythm the candidates had established.
Then there are the moderators’ questions. There is a time and a place for broad, open-ended questions such as: “What changes would you make to the American health-care system?” Given a minute and 15 seconds to respond, a candidate can’t get into many specifics. The answers usually turn into a list of goals — “I will make health care more affordable for everyone, and I will make sure every American gets the care that they need” — with little sense of how to get there or what specific changes to law would be made to try to bring about that outcome. It reflects badly on the primary and general electorates that they are so easily satisfied with a wish list instead of a plan with specific details.
This cycle’s debates have intermittently acknowledged that almost every idea discussed on stage would require passage of a bill through Congress, and the votes aren’t likely to be there unless there is a historic Democratic landslide in this year’s Senate races. Some candidates have pledged to get rid of the filibuster in the Senate, even though the president doesn’t have any power over that. Few of the remaining candidates have much of a record of creating bipartisan coalitions. (If you ask Senate Republicans, Biden and Klobuchar are the ones who have actually reached out to hammer out deals.) Most of these candidates are setting themselves up to lament, “Well, I wanted to enact my agenda, but I thought I would have more Democrats in the Senate, and I just didn’t have a backup plan to figure out how to handle a GOP Senate majority.”
Last night, CBS partnered with Twitter and submitted a question from user Casey Pennington:
“How will your policies address and ensure affordable housing and education equity for minimum wage workers?” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that question, but again, you’re not going to get many specifics in 75 seconds. Even if candidates can remember the specifics of their plans in the heat of the moment, they and their debate coaches have little faith in the audience’s ability to follow the fine details of federal policy.
Except that if the debate system ever benefited the voters watching at home, that hasn’t been the case for decades. The media has failed us by focusing on who (they think) “won” the debate instead of analyzing what was said for its substance, not for poor debate performance, as if the candidates were high school forensics competitors. Debating skills have literally nothing to do with what presidents do.