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The Democratic Debates Aren’t Helpful. Here’s How To Make Them Better

Democratic candidates for president take the stage for the first of two primary debates hosted by CNN, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)
Democratic candidates for president take the stage for the first of two primary debates hosted by CNN, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Paul Sancya/AP)

There has to be a better way to do this.

I mean, it’s a little late to change the Democrats’ debate format right now — I’m typing this minutes after Day One of Debate Two has ended, and the countdown clock on CNN is already ticking toward the next installment. But after almost three hours of shouts and sloganeering among ten candidates of vastly different degrees of viability, I’m already weary. And preemptively bored. And, putting myself in the shoes of a casual Democratic voter, I’m lost.

It wasn’t that Tuesday’s debate in Detroit was short on issues, exactly. The conversation exposed some clear fault lines: on nuclear policy, on health care, on immigration, on higher education policy. It gave the candidates a chance to prosecute both sides of the Democrats’ big primary divide, the debate over whether voters crave sweeping, unapologetically-progressive policies like the free college tuition and Medicare For All, or whether anything that smacks of socialism will send swing voters racing to the orange-shaded, race-baiting arms of Donald Trump.

But after almost three hours of shouts and sloganeering ... I’m already weary. And preemptively bored.

But no rapid-fire squabbling got us much closer to knowing which candidate, on either side of that debate, would actually be the best choice to face Trump in 2020. Is it the person who can talk the fastest? Shout the loudest? Speak the smoothest? Sound the most Heartland?

That’s the trouble with this format, with ten candidates tussling for time and attention: it illuminated little except for the candidates’ ability to recite portions of their stump speeches in a convincing way.

If you knew anything more than surface-deep about the issues, meanwhile, you were bound to be disappointed. Regardless of where you stand on single-payer health care, for instance, it’s fair to say that the problem with our nation’s health care system doesn’t begin or end with insurance companies. And it’s worth noting that much of the paperwork burden that Sen. Elizabeth Warren blamed on insurers actually comes from Medicare itself.

But who would know that? Not CNN’s moderators, who are generalists at best, political creatures at worst — and much more interested in teeing up conflict than diving in deep on ideas. They got their wish, to some degree; a few retorts turned into memorable lines, and Warren might have won the night with her clapback line to moderate Rep. John Delaney of Maryland: “I don’t understand why anybody goes to the trouble of running for president of the United States just to say all the things we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio spoke for America when he told Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, “You didn’t have to yell.”

But mostly, everyone was just fighting for a viral moment or a bit of rhetoric that would break through, from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s “wish list economics” line to South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s decision to talk about his age with every answer. (He also quoted the Bible, an act which felt, to this round of debates, like speaking Spanish was to the first.)

Some candidates were wholly chewed up by the experience. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar seemed scripted and subdued, and twice spoke awkwardly about a tragedy victim she’d planted in the audience. Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke had less to say with every successive long-winded reply; his only specific, original idea seemed to be visiting every county in Texas. Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper looked overwhelmed by the stage. Marianne Williamson seemed teleported in from another place on the space-time continuum.

That’s Donald Trump’s nightmare of a debate. Which means it probably ought to be the Democrats’ dream.

Others fared better. Grant some points to Bullock for seeming approachable, and Sanders for being snappy. Give Warren props for passion and knowledge of her own proposals — with some unspecified deduction for voters turned off by her choice to repeatedly keep talking when her time is up.

But then imagine Warren holding forth at a completely different kind of debate. Maybe it’s focused on a single topic. Maybe it features a smaller group of candidates. Maybe it only lasts an hour and a half. Maybe it’s moderated, not by political reporters or generalist anchors, but by deeply-knowledgeable beat reporters who can ask questions that get to both nuance and truth. Who discourage the shouting and cut through the sloganeering.

That’s Donald Trump’s nightmare of a debate. Which means it probably ought to be the Democrats’ dream.

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Joanna Weiss Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Joanna Weiss is the editor of Experience Magazine, published by Northeastern University.

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