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Can Someone Please Vote CNN Off the Stage?

Jonathan Bernstein

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ten of the Democrats debated on Tuesday night. But the debate was dominated by Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Don Lemon – CNN’s moderators.

Norm Ornstein got it right:

It’s not just that the time allocations were harsh. (The candidates were constantly being cut off, sometimes after being given all of 15 seconds to make their points.) And not just that the time allocation seemed somewhat arbitrary.

No, it was the questioning that really fell short – very, very short.

The CNN moderators, again and again, employed the very worst types of questions. One style that Tapper used repeatedly early on was interrupting to insist that the candidates stick to a portion of a topic that he found interesting (such as whether their health care plans would involve increases in taxes for the middle class) rather than what they wanted to talk about. The night also featured too many gotcha questions, in which a candidate is challenged about something they said.(1) But even worse was a constant theme of asking one candidate to fight with another. Candidate X, what do you think of Candidate Y’s plan?

Those questions have superficial appeal because they appear to get to what separates the candidates. And they promise fireworks, with candidates forced to argue. But in reality, invitation-to-fight questions tend to emphasize the differences that the moderators select, which may or may not be substantively important ones. It leads the debate to focus on areas of internal candidate differences, leaving policy areas where they agree irrelevant – even if those areas are important, and contain real disputes with the other party.

So for example late in the debate we had an extended exchange on nuclear no-first-use. Is that an important policy? Sure. Is it the most important thing to talk about in national security and foreign policy right now? I don’t think many experts would say so.

It also created a frame of moderates squaring off against Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that worked well for the candidates running as self-professed moderates, especially John Delaney, and much less well for the candidates who straddle that divide (and, one might argue, therefore are best positioned to unify the party): Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke. Buttigieg and perhaps to a lesser extent Klobuchar got in a few good lines anyway, but the debate was stacked against them by the way the moderators thought about the candidates.

What’s more to the point is that the framing wasn’t very good for the party as a whole. It pushed both the moderates and the more progressive candidates away from the center of the party, because they were all cast that way.

All of that raises the question of how much longer parties will go along with it.

Once upon a time, in the 1970s and 1980s especially, presidential nomination debates were fully decentralized: Some organization (usually from the news media, including local news media, but sometimes other groups) would invite candidates to debate, and if enough of them accepted, the debate was on. They weren’t necessarily televised nationally, and the sponsor would decide who to invite, what rules to use, and everything else – with the main constraint only whether candidates were willing to show up for whatever conditions were set. We still have plenty of group forums or town halls or whatever that work that way.

Over the last four or five cycles, however, the parties have been taking over. This year the Democratic Party has decided a lot of the whens, wheres, hows and whos.

After Tuesday night’s event, I have to believe that there are plenty of people at the Democratic National Committee – and plenty of candidates and their staff – who are fed up with debates that put the TV stars first.

I wouldn’t be surprised, especially if things go badly over the rest of the cycle, if both parties start thinking seriously about running their own shows in 2024.

Now, there would be plenty of pitfalls, just as there have been when the parties took over the scheduling and the invitations. It’s certainly possible the parties, if they did take over the debates, might come to regret it. But could they? Yup. Sure, the networks want to promote their own talent by having them moderate, but the events would still be excellent for them even without that, and the parties could still arrange some sort of limited MC role for network anchors.

And while party-sponsored debates would presumably stick to topics that the party wants to talk about, I’m not sure – especially after watching what CNN just did – that voters would be worse off.

So I don’t know who won tonight’s debate, but I’m pretty sure that CNN, and perhaps in the future the media in general, were the losers.

(1) Gotcha questions may have their place in interviews, although even there they tend to substitute for substance, but they're almost always a mistake in debates, where the candidates have each other to keep them honest.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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