The Democratic Debates Are Broken


Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images


Over more than five hours of televised debate this week in Detroit, the Democratic candidates for president squabbled, talked over one another, looked for their “breakout moment,” and generally failed to alter the broader landscape of their party’s primary.

While the first batch of debates gave us a moment that shifted, at least momentarily, the dynamic of the race – Kamala Harris’ attack on Joe Biden – the second round left me more secure in something I’d thought since June: the format of these debates does a disservice to everyone associated with them. 

To be sure, there is a place for debates as a party picks its nominee and the country picks its president. But its place is not as a 10-person free-for-all without the requisite time to discuss critically important issues. The current format makes each candidate seem lesser than they are, and diminishes the gravity of the issues discussed. 

In Detroit, there was not a single question asked about reproductive rights – even as Brett Kavanaugh is within arm’s length of overturning Roe v. Wade, triggering a swath of laws that would pass automatically and outlaw abortion in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arkansas.

It took until the second debate had almost ended for any candidate to even mention abortion rights, when Harris attacked Biden for his past support – and recent clumsy about-face – of the Hyde Amendment. When pressed, Biden failed to say the word abortion, stumbling over a response pledging that his healthcare plan would cover “those kinds of services.”

That was far from the only issue given short shrift this week. While the CNN moderators did a better job of asking questions about the climate crisis than their MSNBC counterparts a month ago, they only spent 20 minutes combined over the two nights asking questions about it, and the resulting debate still took place on a depressingly basic level.

Rather than an engaging and robust discussion about the best ways to build to a clean energy economy and think about the impact that the climate crisis will have on marginalized communities, the moderators asked loaded questions about the Green New Deal clearly influenced by Republican talking points.

There are two clear structural issues with the first two rounds of Democratic debates.

The first is that the five candidates with a greater than five percent chance of being the nominee were not on the same stage.

Over the last three weeks, Biden, Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have engaged in a protracted argument about the best way to provide more people with healthcare. They should have been having that argument on stage, together! That Warren was instead arguing with former Congressman John Delaney is ludicrous. 

According to the Real Clear Politics polling average, the top tier candidates, Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, and Pete Buttigieg are supported by 80 percent of Democratic primary voters. Those voters ought to see them squaring off against each other. 

The second problem is that forcing a debate over what are supposedly the most important issues to Democratic voters into a two-and-a-half hour televised spectacle does not enable the candidates to give those issues the thoughtful debate they deserve.

The format relegates the issues to a cudgel with which to beat candidates they dislike to score political points – and try to punch a ticket to the next round of debates – and minimizes their seriousness and complexity. 

Their seriousness and complexity, coupled with the unique threat that Donald Trump poses to the health and well-being of so many people, calls on the Democratic nominee to grasp what Dr. Martin Luther King dubbed “the urgency of now.” 

At the March on Washington, King called on all of us to harness the urgency of now when he argued that the federal government needed to legislate to protect civil rights not tomorrow, but yesterday. The racial discrimination that he and his fellow protestors were highlighting posed such a clear and present danger to their lives and to the health and future of the United States that action could no longer wait.

That urgency of now is as relevant today as it was in 1963. The men, women, and children separated from their families and forced to drink out of toilet bowls while living in cages on our southern border feel the urgency of now. Every additional moment that a child is separated from their family causes further damage to their emotional and mental let alone physical well-being that will affect them for the rest of their life.

The urgency of now extends to the tens of millions of Americans who are uninsured or under-insured, to the Americans rationing their insulin because they can no longer afford to buy it.

It extends to the climate crisis that threatens us with Earth’s next great mass extinction, and required action a decade ago, not tomorrow. 

It extends to gun violence, the great public health crisis of our time.

The urgency of now extends to the assault on reproductive rights and abortion, that word Biden couldn’t figure out how to say. It extends to Iran and North Korea and the new threat of a catastrophic nuclear war, and Syria and Yemen and our complicity in the suffering and starvation of people and places ravaged by civil war and violence.

There are countless other issues, from student debt, to paid family leave, to a domestic worker’s bill of rights, and on and on, that also demand the urgency of now. 10 people talking over each other about eight different issues for two-and-a-half hours on television while looking for their “breakout moment” doesn’t leave voters feeling the need to act immediately.

Thus far, the Democratic National Committee has resisted calls for a climate change-specific debate – though it seems, thanks to committed and organized activism, like they may acquiesce and hold one.

That is the right decision, and one the DNC should have come to long ago about other issues too. This would be a stronger and more robust primary if the DNC had decided to organize 12 issue-specific debates.

Our climate crisis is important enough to merit a two-and-a-half hour debate. So is healthcare. And immigration reform. And a woman’s right to choose. And college affordability and student debt. And gun violence. And police brutality. And systemic racism.

Imagine what an interesting, policy-oriented primary this would be if every candidate had two-and-a-half hours to debate one another on those issues. Think about all we would learn about what they want to do, and what they really prioritize.

Maybe voters would leave actually understanding what Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal are, how comprehensive immigration reform would actually work and what decriminalizing crossing the border means, and why candidates think differently about how to resolve our student debt crisis.

There’s a way to make these debates informative and worthwhile. What happened on Tuesday and Wednesday night isn’t it.

One response to “The Democratic Debates Are Broken

  1. Pingback: It’s Time for Direct Action in America | Six Votes Down·

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