New debate, same old story

Last night, at Drake University in Iowa, CNN became the first network to have hosted (or co-hosted) three debates this election cycle. (MSNBC has been involved with two, and will get a third next month. Fox News is still blacklisted by the Democratic National Committee.) CNN mixed its moderators up, putting Wolf Blitzer and Abby Phillip in the limelight. With the Iowa caucuses three weeks away, it had a new hosting partner, too—the Des Moines Register, which was represented by its top politics reporter, Brianne Pfannenstiel. All the cable news channels rile people up, but CNN has a special place in the craw of progressives and conservatives alike, especially at election time. Predictably, as the debate unfolded, Twitter did not hold back. At one point, #CNNIsTrash started trending in America.

After CNN’s first debate of the cycle, last July, its critics, on Twitter and elsewhere, argued that the network seemed desperate to stoke conflict between candidates who didn’t seem to want to take the bait. (Aside from John Delaney, who is still in the race, if you were wondering.) Later in the year, a CJR analysis appeared to bear that out: across the first six debates of the cycle, CNN was responsible for more than half of the questions that asked one candidate to comment on another. (The first six Republican debates ahead of 2016 saw a similar trend.) At the start of last night’s debate, the network took a similar tack, around rising tensions with Iran. Blitzer asked Bernie Sanders about his criticisms of Joe Biden’s vote for the war in Iraq, then asked Amy Klobuchar about her criticisms of Pete Buttigieg’s inexperience.

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After the foreign-policy discussion, the moderators turned to the conflict Everyone Came To See: Sanders v. Elizabeth Warren. Surprisingly (and laudably) it was stoked first in the context of trade policy. Pfannenstiel asked Sanders about his opposition to the new trade deal between the US, Canada, and Mexico, then asked Warren why she thinks Sanders is wrong. (Sanders says the deal, known as USMCA, will cost jobs; Warren says it will give “some relief” to farmers and workers. She plans to vote for it in the Senate, then campaign for something better.)

It wasn’t long, however, before attention turned to the “sizzling feud” (CNN’s words) that dominated coverage in the run-up to the debate: the claim—reported by CNN, then made by Warren herself—that Sanders privately told Warren that a woman can’t win the White House in 2020. Sanders denied having said such a thing. Phillip asked Sanders to reiterate his denial, but rather than asking Warren to respond to it, proceeded as if the denial hadn’t happened: “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?” Sanders laughed. Online, his supporters were not amused. Warren and the only other woman on stage, Klobuchar, were at least given time to rebut the idea that a woman can’t beat Trump, but the final word went to Biden, who—not two weeks ago—said publicly that the sexism that hamstrung Hillary Clinton in 2016 is “not going to happen with me.” CNN didn’t bring that up. The Warren-Sanders feud dominated much post-debate chatter, fueled, in no small part, by Warren’s apparent refusal to shake Sanders’s hand at the end. As of this morning, CNN was running a GIF of the moment at the top of its homepage.

Fundamentally, the reason we have debates—and not just interviews and town halls—is to tease out candidates’ contrasting policy positions in a dynamic setting. Conflict, in other words, can be a useful thing. Problems come when it’s contrived, and when it’s prioritized at the expense of other meaningful dynamics—for example, the need to emphasize the linkages between different policy topics, rather than keeping them in silos. The 2020 debates have often failed on the latter score, and last night’s was no exception. When Sanders cited climate change in his opposition to USMCA, he was told, by Pfannenstiel, “We’re going to get to climate change but I’d like to stay on trade.” (Sanders replied that they’re the same thing, but his time was up.) Climate questions only came much later, as did the night’s only question on race, which was really a question about the electability of Buttigieg. On Twitter, Astead W. Herndon, of the New York Times, pointed out that the people on stage—all of whom were white—could have made any of the night’s questions about race; that they didn’t, he wrote, reflects “a failure of candidate imagination.” It’s also a moderator’s job to tease out such failures, and interrogate them.

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Last night saw other very typical framing problems. Moderators entered the healthcare discussion through the prism of cost, but did not bring that up in the discussion of war. (Jamelle Bouie, of the Times, tweeted: “If it helps people, it costs money. If it murders them, it’s free. Those are the rules.”) A host of pressing issues—the earthquakes in Puerto Rico, for instance—were ignored completely; in their closing statements, Warren and Sanders both complained about important topics they hadn’t been able to talk about. Afterward, we saw the usual cavalcade of empty headlines about “Democrats sparring,” lists of winners and losers, etc., etc., etc. Alongside his list, CNN’s Chris Cillizza offered a self-congratulatory “honorable mention: Policy is also a winner tonight.” If you say so, Chris.

Given all the chatter, ahead of time, about the elevated stakes of the Democratic race as Iowa approaches, it’s striking just how similar this debate was to those that came before. Sure, some have been more substantive than others. In general, however, they’ve all operated within the same format—rattling through roughly the same issues, framed in roughly the same way, with occasional changes to the running order. Feuds, when they’ve sparked, have dominated the aftermath—but with minimal hindsight, most of them have started to look small fry. (Do you remember Biden and Julián Castro appearing not to shake hands? In a few weeks, will you remember Warren and Sanders not doing so?)

Politicians must share the blame for this repetitiveness. The Democratic National Committee has declined to authorize single-issue debates that would allow topics like climate change to be explored in finer detail; the candidates themselves, needless to say, need no invitation to hammer home their sculpted talking points. But we encourage them anyway. As the debates have gone on, critics have accused the networks—not least CNN—of treating them as entertainment. But at least entertainment—good entertainment, anyway—has some kind of compelling narrative arc. The current format seems much more nihilistic than that.

Below, more on the debate and the campaign:

  • Anti-Bernie bias?: Progressive commentators and outlets including The Nation and The Intercept say CNN treated Sanders unfairly last night. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim, Aída Chávez, and Akela Lacy see a comparison with the Fox News debate, in 2016, ahead of which Megyn Kelly was ostensibly told to go hard on Trump. This time, “it was CNN moderators who brought out the bat and swung it hard at Sanders.”
  • Counterprogramming: As he often does when attention is turned elsewhere, Trump held a rally last night, in Wisconsin. Democratic candidates who didn’t make the debate stage were out and about, too. Michael Bloomberg went on Colbert, and had his campaign send out dad jokes for the duration of the debate. (“Remember, tonight’s winner goes on to face defending champion Ken Jennings.”) And Andrew Yang unveiled an endorsement from Dave Chappelle. “I’m Yang Gang!” Chappelle said.
  • Who we’re not reaching: For Vanity Fair, Peter Hamby writes that Trump has a huge advantage with low-information voters. “The political media blob tumbles forward every day on the assumption that people are aware of these story lines and characters, that voters are tuning in, when many probably can’t tell you what channel this thing is on.”
  • “No one wins”: For New York’s The Cut, Bridget Read took aim, prior to the debate, at coverage of Warren and Sanders. “Nothing has made me more frustrated in this election so far than reading the words, ‘a woman can’t win,’ over and over again as this story traveled,” she wrote. “Simply repeating, without context or interrogation of the issue, that you’re afraid a woman can’t win makes it harder to imagine a future in which… she can.”


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.