Twenty Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Detroit, Michigan for two nights of debates last week that were criticized for encouraging conflict instead of examining substantive policy issues.
CNN, the host and broadcaster of the debates, opened the show with a 3-minute introduction featuring suspenseful violins and a roaring voiceover. It profiled differences among candidates, highlighting how Sen. Bernie Sanders would go “head-to-head” with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Many observers were shocked by the dramatization of the introduction.
This CNN intro is just too much. If they don’t all come running out on to the stage now through a giant helmet with smoke machines and confetti accompanying them, I’m out.
— (((Michael Koplow))) (@mkoplow) July 31, 2019
Is it me, or did the opening to CNN's Democratic Presidential Debate just now look and sound like the pre-game announcements to an NFL or WWE match? #DemocraticDebate
— Eric Deggans at NPR (@Deggans) July 31, 2019
The introduction established the tone for both nights of the debates. CNN moderators Jake Tapper, Don Lemon and Dana Bash frequently asked the candidates questions about one another that focused on political success, rather than actual policy. Early in the night, Tapper asked Sanders about former Rep. John Delaney’s views on Medicare For All.
“You support Medicare for All, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored healthcare for everyone. Congressman Delaney just referred to it as bad policy. And previously, he has called the idea ‘political suicide that will just get President Trump re-elected.’ What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”
Tapper later asked former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper if he believed Sanders was “too extreme to beat President Trump?”
The moderators continued to ask candidates specific questions about one another, using rhetoric that focused on the candidates’ electability above all else.
“The debate stage isn’t really the best format for such a discussion, since everyone’s arguments on who would be most electable are so self-interested (the answer is always “me”). Voters instead have to read between the lines and decide for themselves,” wrote Vox’s Andrew Prokop.
According to an article by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), the two nights of debates contained 31 non-policy questions. In comparison, there were only 11 questions asked about gun control and seven questions on women’s rights.
CNN advertised the second night of the debates as a “rematch of former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris,” leading watchers to compare the debates to reality television.
Most candidates spent the second night focusing on Biden’s long record during his time representing Delaware in the Senate. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro criticized his support of President Obama’s immigration policies.
“One of us has learned the lessons of the past, and one of us hasn’t,” Castro, who served alongside Biden in the Obama administration, said. “What we need is politicians who actually have some guts on this issue.”
Meanwhile, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand attacked Biden’s record on women’s rights and Senator Cory Booker targeted him for his support of the 1994 crime bill.
“Since the 1970s, every crime bill, major and minor, has had his name on it,” Booker said about Biden during the debate. “And those are your words, not mine. And this is one of those instances where the house was set on fire and you claimed responsibility for those laws. And you can’t just now come out with a plan to put out that fire.”
In response, Biden tried to focus on his current policy ideas, rather than his past record.
Meanwhile, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard honed in on Harris’ record when she served as the Attorney General of California. Gabbard accused Harris of prosecuting as many as 1,500 individuals over marijuana charges and extending the sentences of prisoners to utilize them for free labor, claims which were found by fact-checking website Politifact to be “framed in a misleading way.”
“Senator Harris says she’s proud of her record as a prosecutor and that she’ll be a prosecutor president. But I’m deeply concerned about this record,” Gabbard said.
Across both nights, CNN gave the candidates ample opportunity to take jabs at one another— and the candidates were sure to not let that go to waste.
“Honestly, you could catalog all journalism’s faults just from watching debate moderators,” tweeted Joshua Benton, who runs Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab. “An obsession with conflict over explanation, forcing complex policies into soundbites, above-it-all savviness that only makes sense if you spend all your time on Politics Twitter or in DC.”