Debates are usually a focused affair, with two people discussing a particular narrow topic. The famous 1965 debate at Cambridge where James Baldwin wiped the floor with William F. Buckley, for instance, was on the question: "Has the American dream been achieved at the expense of the American negro?"
But when 10 people are "debating" multiple large policy topics, as we saw with the first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night in Miami, you get about what you might expect: a mess.
The first half of the debate focused on economic policy. There were numerous instances of candidates pandering with some poorly-accented Spanish, flagrantly dodging questions, butting in to attack each other, but at least it stayed sort of on track.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) dominated this section. She laid out a clear Brandeisian perspective, attacking monopolies and defending her plans to break up big tech companies and jack up taxes on the rich without apology. Savannah Guthrie repeatedly attempted to bait Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) into attacking Warren's ideas as they had done previously, but both largely agreed with her instead. The old neoliberal Clinton-Obama tradition of celebrating entrepreneurs and markets could barely be heard at all.
One notable policy moment came when Lester Holt asked which candidates would get rid of private insurance in favor of Medicare-for-all, and only Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio raised their hands. On previous occasions, Warren has waffled somewhat on whether she really agrees with Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) Medicare-for-all plan. It appears she has decided to stick with him, even if that means promising to obliterate private insurance.
However, she didn't take up the most convincing line of response to the canard that Medicare-for-all means lots of people losing their insurance (brought up by most of the other candidates), which is to point out that the private employer-based system already throws about a quarter of people with this coverage off their insurance every year — causing roughly 180 million insurance loss events over four years. Medicare-for-all would cause a huge net decrease in the amount of insurance lost, and abolish it permanently thereafter.
At any rate, Warren faded into the background when the subject of immigration came up. Here former Housing Secretary Julián Castro stood out, repeatedly jumping in to demand the other candidates promise to make illegal immigration a civil offense, provide a path to citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants, and provide aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to stem the tide of refugees. He savaged former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke in particular, who struggled to respond effectively. And once again, there was broad agreement with Castro's basic framework.
Things took a turn for the worse when Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow stepped in as moderators. Maddow at least asked reasonable questions, but neither of them could keep a handle on the conversation, resulting in several minutes of incomprehensible cross-talk and jostling for time, as the candidates polling at 1 percent (mostly moderate white guys even I have trouble telling apart) attempted to elbow their way into the conversation. Warren wasn't heard much in the second half of the debate.
Worse, Todd — in keeping with the partisan balance of guests on his show, which is more tilted towards conservatives than Fox News Sunday — asked preposterously loaded questions. On gun control, he repeatedly implied Democrats were planning to confiscate all guns (something none of them have ever remotely proposed). On climate change, he asked how candidates would pay for their plans (and not how they would pay for ever-increasing weather disasters if we don't attack the problem), and asked O'Rourke how he would respond to a voter who agrees with climate policy but "suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live" — a question that is somehow never raised with similarly-coercive subsidies for fossil fuels, single family homes, or highways. It was a classic instance of a supposedly nonpartisan journalist reinforcing right-wing policy narratives and framing it as pushing lefties to confront Tough Choices.
It wasn't a total loss, of course. Any unscripted event like this provides an interesting window into how candidates think on their feet, where they take a stand versus ducking the question, what they think is most important, and so on. De Blasio, Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee used their time well to press their signature issues and perspectives. Despite being a bit hesitant to jump in, Warren also gave a solid performance.
But those moments were few and far between. The debate was mostly just people talking over each other or the moderators as they desperately tried to blurt out their talking points in two-minute or 30-second intervals. Key policy questions were left hanging as the conversation flitted from topic to topic (with breaks for commercials, naturally).
There are going to be a lot of these debates. It would be far more interesting to see a smaller number of candidates focusing on one or two big issues, with much longer time for answers and responses. What we are going to get, at least until the field narrows a great deal, is a bunch of zany clown cars.