I’ve just returned from Detroit, Michigan, where I attended the second set of Democratic Party presidential primary debates. For many reasons, the debates were a frustrating experience. In the first place, there were simply too many candidates – many of whom, frankly speaking, didn’t belong cluttering up the stage. And then there was the way these debates were run – more for TV ratings and entertainment, than for serious discussion and enlightenment.
In 1984, I was in New Hampshire with Reverend Jesse Jackson for one of that year’s Democratic presidential primary debates. It was a thoughtful discussion with a professional moderator. At one point, though, I recall looking at the eight candidates on stage and thinking to myself, “Jesse is dominating this debate. He may not win, but he’ll always be remembered. A few years from now, how many of these other guys will we even be able to recall were in this race?”
I had much the same experience this week in Detroit, Michigan. Twenty of the 25 declared candidates met the standards that had been established to take part in the debates. And, as in 1984, they were largely individuals of some distinction. There were seven Senators, seven others who had served or are currently Members of Congress or Governors, three mayors, a former vice-president, and a former cabinet secretary.
As I watched the debates unfold, it became painfully clear that several of the candidates simply lacked the stature to compete. Why, then, were they there?
Because there were so many who are running, each of the two debate nights featured 10 candidates on stage. And each night’s debates lasted an exhausting two-and-a-half hours. Especially upsetting was how the debates were run – more as a made for television spectacle, designed to boost ratings (and therefore advertising revenues) than as a serious effort to help voters decide who would be best to lead the nation.
A few weeks back, we got an inkling of how the sponsoring network would be operating the debate when they devoted a full hour to a lottery-style drawing to determine which 10 would go on which night. It was bizarre, with each draw shown live, simultaneously, on three cameras – each from a different angle.
This continued in the days leading up to “Debate Night” – with endless commentary from pundits sounding a lot like sports analysts “gaming the match-ups”.
There was a time (like back in 1984), when the debates were driven by the candidates. Now too much attention and control has been given to the TV personalities.
One of the TV hosts saw it as his job to debunk Senator Sanders’ and Warren’s proposed Medicare For All legislation. After trying, himself, to set the trap by repeatedly asking Warren whether she would raise taxes for the middle class to pay for her proposal, he shifted gears, prodding some of the other less known candidates to challenge both Warren and Sanders.
The exchanges that followed became testy and also produced some of the evening’s more memorable lines. Warren shot back at the TV guy “These are Republican talking points!” and she asked one of her opponents why he was running as Democrat if he couldn’t support “big ideas” that helped people. Sanders, for his part, after being badgered by an opponent who continued to interrupt him challenging what was included in the Medicare For All bill, shouted back that of course he knew what was in there because, “I wrote the damn bill!” He also questioned why we could give billions of dollars in tax breaks to the richest Americans, without any protest, yet balk at spending more to ensure that health care be guaranteed as a right, instead of as a privilege.
If the intent had been to deflate Sanders and Warren, it didn’t work. They fended off challenges and emerged not only unscathed, but the evening’s dominant personalities.
The second “Debate Night” was different. The TV moderators continued to use Sanders’ and Warren’s progressive agenda as foils, baiting the 10 on stage to challenge them, even though they weren’t there to explain what was actually in their proposals.
After two nights in which millions of dollars were spent (and millions in advertising revenues were earned), what we got were a few memorable lines, a few lasting impressions, a few battered candidates, a few who weathered attacks, and a lot of heat with very little light.