Best Democratic debate was worst TV
Published 12:09 AM EDT Sep 13, 2019
Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, or so the Democrats seemed to think Thursday night.
After two previous presidential debates stretching over two nights, Democrats finally whittled it down to a single night with 10 candidates — and doubled the length to three hours.
Boy, the next time I complain the Oscars go on too long … well, they do. But this went on forever. And it weakened the impact of the evening, which included first time front runners Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders who appeared on-stage together.
The candidates discussed plenty, often mowing right over the moderators who tried to rein them in, and there were some big moments: offers of free money to voters, a tacky ageist put-down and some real substance on important issues.
But it went on so long they’re kind of hard to remember individually.
It’s true that any presidential debate is an important part of the democratic process, a way to help voters decide who they want to support as their party’s candidate. We need them.
It’s also true that it’s a TV show, a fact Donald Trump recognized and rode to the presidency. And you’ve got to be mighty compelling to keep people tuned in for three hours.
For instance, even in a debate of regular length, can you recall any single moment from opening statements? Typically it’s a platform for platitudes, a chance for candidates to tell mostly what we already know about them.
Thursday was different, at least in one case. Andrew Yang, who had boasted beforehand he was going to do something unprecedented (and he didn’t mean leaving the tie at home again), said he would give $1,000 (his universal basic income plan) to 10 people who went to his website. It was weird — Pete Buttigieg, who was next in line to speak, was momentarily rendered speechless before saying, well, that was different — and Twitter lawyers instantly argued over whether it was even legal.
And then three hours and a lot of questions and answers passed, and it became just an “oh yeah, that happened” moment.
The biggest immediate takeaway, at least in coverage after the debate (and on social media as it happened) was Julian Castro’s attack on Joe Biden. Biden had answered a question about health care, and Castro retorted, “Are you forgetting what you said two minutes ago?” It sure seemed like a clear attack on Biden’s age (he’s 76) and faculties (he’s prone to gaffes).
This led to a discussion among the candidates about civility, which was then debated, because of course it was.
Seemingly all the candidates ran roughshod over any moderator’s attempt to limit the length of the answers — so much so that eventually Biden, when ABC’s Linsey Davis tried to rein him in, said, “No, I’m going to go like the rest of them do, twice over” — and he did.
This in itself wasn’t such a bad thing, actually. It allowed the candidates to more fully form answers, though both Kamala Harris and Cory Booker seemed determined to devote a fair amount of their time to groan-worthy jokes and quips.
Like any lengthy show or movie — it lasted longer than “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” if you’re curious — the debate developed a sort of rhythm. The first hour (and there were only two commercial breaks during the entire thing) contained most of the fireworks, while the second hour got down to business on topics like immigration and gun control. A big chunk of the third hour went to a single question each candidate answered: What was their biggest setback.
Social media derided the question as something you might ask an entry-level applicant in a job interview (“My biggest shortcoming is I just try too hard”), but most of the candidates got personal; the best blended their experiences with their policies — Amy Klobuchar was maybe the best example of this.
As a meaningful debate, this was probably the best of the three so far. As TV, it might have been the worst. And like it or not, you can’t really make a distinction between the two.
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