Can a televised debate in 2019 really serve the public interest?
Given the state of American media and politics, it seems like a long shot. We’re just too addicted to horse-race politics, reality-TV values and social-media snark for something as earnest as that.
But Tuesday night’s debate in Ohio had potential. The candidate field had been winnowed, and among the moderators was New York Times national editor Marc Lacey, who brought an ink-stained seriousness to the table that also included two respectable CNN hosts: Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett.
In fact, it wasn’t awful. As with the previous three debates, patient and dedicated viewers had a chance to learn a lot about the candidates — and to see, once again, the striking diversity of a field that includes multiple women and people of color and a gay man.
But it could have been so much better. Here’s my Wednesday-morning quarterbacking of what would have helped both in the debate planning and execution.
1. Including questions about climate change and voting rights. Granted, the time was limited (though hardly short), but these are two of the most crucial issues of our time. And they are sorely underexplored on the debate stage in this political season. Did the rehashing of Medicare-for-all and gun control really need — again — to take up so much time at the expense of so much that needs to be fully aired? Binyamin Appelbaum, a Times editorial writer, expressed the exasperation of many: “No questions about climate change. Zero. Zip. Nada.” The absence was appalling.
2. Framing the (apparently unavoidable) question about universal health care and how to fund it in a non-gotcha way. Journalists are kindly doing President Donald Trump’s work for him when they insist on trying to pin down Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the new front-runner, to declare she’d raise taxes to fund Medicare-for-all. Of course, it’s legitimate to dig into the costs, but not in a way that creates a nice GOP campaign ad, and misses the larger lens of overall costs. (Warren, notably, refused to take the bait.)
3. Having fewer candidates onstage. It was a relief to have the field tightened from the last round — as my 20-something daughter drolly acknowledged when she asked me, mid-debate, if I was missing John Hickenlooper. (No, I did not pine for the former Colorado governor, nor former Maryland congressman John Delaney, and couldn’t shed a tear for Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, either.)
Still: 12? At one debate? That never had a chance of being workable, and it wasn’t. One third fewer (just like the calories in light food) would have brought it down to a far more manageable eight, and this viewer could have done without — for example — hearing Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard repeat “regime change war” a dozen times during the foreign-policy discussion.
Having businessman Andrew Yang onstage, however, was delightful if only because of his MATH (Make America Think Harder) lapel pin. Billionaire Tom Steyer? Please.
4. Making it a tight two hours instead of a mind-numbing three. “This debate is so long that it contained an entire vaccine news cycle,” quipped BuzzFeed News editor in chief Ben Smith sometime in the final hour, tweeting a news story about the publicity around — and cancellation of — a Harlem event hosted by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s civil rights organization that would have given credence to anti-vaccine viewpoints.
5. Eliminating the cringe-inducing last question. It was good, this time, not to have dull opening statements and closing statements. But the substitution, in the final minutes, of “tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us” was flat-out embarrassing.
A couple of candidates expounded on the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona, well-known for reaching across the aisle – thus making the revelations something less than surprising. Others talked about someone they met on the campaign trail, which hardly seemed to amount to a friendship.
It didn’t help that the question was inspired by the recently hyped, thoroughly self-serving celebrity pseudo-friendship between comedian Ellen DeGeneres and former president George W. Bush.
Perhaps recognizing the hollowness at the heart of the question, many used their last-gasp moments more cannily: to remind viewers how to find their campaign websites.
On balance, the debate was reasonably substantive and useful. I’d even call it a public service, if a flawed one.
Luckily — if that’s the right word — there are eight more chances to get it right.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist.