So far, the Democratic primary debates have been remarkably nice. Aside from a couple memorable swipes at Joe Biden—and in spite of moderators’ best efforts to contrive conflict—candidates have mostly refrained from personal attacks on each other. The build-up to last night’s debate—moderated by PBS NewsHour and Politico, in Los Angeles—was harmonious, too. All seven of the candidates who qualified backed a push by Cory Booker, who did not qualify, to tweak the debate rules in 2020; all seven also agreed to skip this debate if a labor dispute at Loyola Marymount University, the host, wasn’t resolved. (They did not, in the end, have to cross a picket line.) The first question of the evening, on impeachment, inspired broad agreement among the candidates. (Trump should be removed, but since the Senate isn’t likely to help, Democrats should focus on beating him next year.)
As the debate went on, however, we saw a number of sharp exchanges and disagreements, perhaps more than in any other debate of the cycle. The political press, always thirsty for conflict, pounced. In a push notification, the New York Times alerted readers that we’d seen a “contentious evening”; Dan Balz, of the Washington Post, noted that a “collegial start” had given way to “fireworks.” There was talk of gloves coming off, pummeling, and slugfests, and that was just from Politico. Another Politico piece listed the “five most brutal onstage brawls” of the night, complete with a tally chart and boxing-glove emojis.
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Atop Politico’s list—and leading coverage elsewhere—was “the fight over billionaires in wine caves.” About halfway through the debate, Elizabeth Warren attacked Pete Buttigieg for holding a fundraiser in a California wine cave—according to the Associated Press, the space boasts “a chandelier with 1,500 Swarovski crystals, an onyx banquet table to reflect its luminescence, and bottles of cabernet sauvignon that sell for as much as $900”—and for keeping it private, despite a recent vow to open his fundraisers to the press. “We made the decision many years ago that rich people in smoke-filled rooms would not pick the next president of the United States,” Warren said. Buttigieg hit back, highlighting Warren’s personal wealth and past big-ticket fundraising. “According to Forbes magazine, I’m literally the only person on this stage who is not a millionaire or a billionaire,” he said. “This is the problem with issuing purity tests you cannot yourself pass.” Following some further bickering, Amy Klobuchar—who pundits agreed had A Good Night—weighed in. “I have never even been to a wine cave,” she said. (She added that she has been to the Wind Cave, a national park in South Dakota, and recommends it.)
This morning, the homepages of many major news organizations featured articles about the wine cave argument. Several were explainers (“What the heck is a wine cave?”). Politico asked, in a headline, if “whine cave” might not be the apt phrase. “Here Are Pete and Warren Ripping Each Other Apart,” Slate announced, presenting video of the exchange. “It took six months, but the debates are finally getting good.” Tim Murphy, of Mother Jones, argued that what we’d just witnessed “was one of the campaign’s most consequential arguments,” focusing, as it did, on the influence of big money in politics and what we might do to curb it.
Murphy makes a fair point, but in a lot of coverage, the wine cave was as much a metaphor for fighting as it was about substance. Was the debate really that combative? It hardly matched the eye-gouging brutality of the Trump-dominated Republican primary debates of the 2016 cycle; rather, it looked very much like… a debate. Biden and Bernie Sanders had a pointed, policy-driven exchange over health care, but it got less attention than cavegate. Climate change featured sooner than in prior debates and was worked into discussions of race and China, too. The moderators asked thoughtful questions on a range of topics, including Israel’s expansion of settlements, disability and transgender rights, and the Post’s recent publication of documents revealing lies about the war in Afghanistan. This morning, many of the answers seem invisible. Instead, “winners and losers,” one-liners, and breakout stars dominate. Plus the wine cave.
Ironically, campaign conflict chatter is often a reflection of squeamishness—or outright disinterest—when sharp policy disputes break out into the open. Disagreements among candidates tend to be described as a distraction from the task of beating Trump, not as a healthy feature of the democratic process. As the calendar finally flips to 2020, we should ditch that mindset and focus more on the fights that matter.
Below, more on the debate and the Democrats:
- The media in the debate: The Post’s Afghanistan Papers weren’t the only reference to the news media last night. Early on, Andrew Yang noted that the country can’t agree on impeachment because “we’re getting our news from different sources… Americans don’t trust the media networks to tell them the truth.” Later, during a discussion about China, Buttigieg and Klobuchar defended global press freedom against Trump’s aping of authoritarian rhetoric. (Viewers in China won’t have seen the latter exchange; when the country’s human-rights record came up, the debate feed, which CNN had been carrying in the country, went dark.)
- Diversity concerns: Aside from Yang, every candidate on stage last night was white. In the run-up to the debate, Booker and Julián Castro, neither of whom qualified this time, said the Democratic National Committee’s debate-qualification rules are exclusionary, favoring wealthy candidates over those who reflect the diversity of the party. Booker reinforced the point in an ad that ran during the debate last night. “You’re only gonna see this ad once because I’m not a billionaire,” he said.
- Biden’s stutter: Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the former White House press secretary, mocked Biden on Twitter during the debate; “I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I hhhave absolutely no idea what Biden is talking about,” she wrote. Biden used to have a stutter and reminded Sanders of the fact; Sanders said she didn’t know, then apologized and deleted her tweet. (ICYMI, John Hendrickson recently interviewed Biden about his stutter, for The Atlantic. It’s well worth a read.)
- MSNBC v. the progressives: MSNBC is used to the disdain of conservatives, but “in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election,” Jeremy Barr writes for the Hollywood Reporter, “the network is facing consistent criticism from some of the people most likely to champion it: progressive Democrats.”
Other notable stories:
- The fallout from Trump’s impeachment continues. Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, doubled down on her refusal to send the process to the Senate until it meets certain procedural demands. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, does not seem moved.) In other impeachment news, Politico’s Michael Calderone relays ethical concerns about Rudy Giuliani’s involvement in a series about Ukraine on One America News Network, a pro-Trump channel. The right-wing mediasphere bashed Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, for saying Trump should be hanged (he didn’t) and Rachael Bade, a Post reporter, for celebrating impeachment (she didn’t). And Christianity Today, an influential evangelical magazine, backed Trump’s removal from office.
- The opinion section of the Times obtained a giant dataset logging the movements of millions of people via their mobile phones. The data file is the largest and most sensitive of its kind ever reviewed by journalists, Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, the authors of the story, write. An anonymous source leaked the information from inside a private location-data company because “they had grown alarmed about how it might be abused,” and urgently wanted to alert the public. “If you could see the full trove,” Thompson and Warzel write, “you might never use your phone the same way again.”
- Arizona has created a task force to counter disinformation aimed at the state’s judicial system, Yael Grauer reports for Slate. Solutions under consideration include public education campaigns, “coordinating with influencers who would agree to post accurate information to their followers in a crisis situation” and pressuring the platforms to remove disinformation. The latter step, Grauer writes, could have First Amendment implications.
- Several potential buyers are circling Univision, the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin, Miriam Gottfried, and Cara Lombardo report. They include Hemisphere Media Group, a Spanish-language media company based in Miami; Platinum Equity, a private-equity firm; and Wade Davis, a former Viacom executive backed by third-party financing.
- For CJR, Danny Jin reports on the media fallout from “RickyLeaks”—the publication, in the summer, of private messages between Ricardo Rosselló, then the governor of Puerto Rico, and his aides. Much coverage of the scandal, Jin writes, overlooked a key point: what the messages revealed about administration efforts to manipulate the press.
- A court in Japan awarded damages to Shiori Ito, a reporter who says a senior broadcast journalist raped her in 2015. “Although the compensation was about one-third of what Ito had sought,” Simon Denyer and Akiko Kashiwagi write for the Post, “the verdict marked a victory for women’s rights in Japan and for the country’s nascent #MeToo movement.”
- Amid rising intercommunal violence, the government of Ethiopia is pushing a bill that it says will combat hate speech and disinformation online. International observers—including the United Nations and Human Rights Watch—have warned that the proposed law is broad and vague, and thus a potential threat to free expression.
- And the newsletter is taking a break for the holidays. We’ll see you in 2020, which should be nice and quiet on the news front. In the meantime, we’ll continue publishing new stories at CJR.org; first up this morning, we pulled together 20 great pieces of journalism that moved and inspired us in the 2010s. Happy holiday reading.
ICYMI: What would social media look like if it served the public interest?Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.