The utter insignificance of the Democratic debates
Did voters actually learn anything new Tuesday night?
Normally, television reruns air in the summertime, but the DNC continues to break new ground with the 2020 primary campaign. The contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination battled on the prime-time stage Tuesday night, almost entirely over the same issues that have been discussed in numerous other forums. Even on relatively new issues, such as Donald Trump's abrupt withdrawal of U.S. military support for Kurds in eastern Syria, the spectacle did little to enlighten or to sharpen the choice facing voters next year.
One has to ask whether these debates serve any purpose at all, especially in their current format. Do voters actually see or hear anything in any of these "commercialized reality television" events, as Tulsi Gabbard put it last week, to provide a rational basis for a voting decision? And do candidates offer anything other than a regurgitation of campaign-trail sound bites that voters already hear ad infinitum thanks to 24-hour news and social media?
Even the zingers appear subject to the law of diminishing returns. Kamala Harris attacked Joe Biden in the first June debate over his 1970s position on forced busing, momentarily denting his polling dominance and sending her stock rising. In the second debate, Gabbard's attack on Harris sent her stock into a spiral from which it has never recovered. Since then, though, debate missteps and triumphs have barely registered in polling. After four official debates and a half-dozen or more prime-time "forums" by various media outlets, most voters have already taken the measure of the candidates. Thanks to blanket media coverage, repeating their positions on the static issues — health care, taxes, immigration, and even an impeachment of Trump — isn't going to change many minds.
Even on dynamic and acute issues, the debate format strangled any attempt to suss out substantive policy discussion. Trump's seemingly arbitrary decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria and leave Kurdish allies exposed to Turkey's military offered opportunities for an expansive new discussion. But with the exception of Tulsi Gabbard's attempt to litigate the U.S. larger approach to the Middle East, most of the candidates opted instead to carefully parse out the difference between what Trump did and how he did it, and largely ended up offering the same answer. Gabbard's attempts to challenge those answers ran into the game show-style talk limits and the moderators' impulse to change the subject to issues on which the candidates have already expounded at length in previous forums. The entire issue took up less than 10 minutes of the three-hour-plus debate.
So if elucidation on important developments isn't the point of these events, what is? Entertainment? That mostly comes in the form of rehearsed zingers and spontaneous snark, but even that has lost its impact value. Pete Buttigieg traded shots with Robert "Beto" O'Rourke over gun control at one point, telling O'Rourke that "I don't need lessons from you on courage, political or personal," a thinly veiled resumé reference to Buttigieg's military service. However, the debate focused on long-promoted positions by both men — O'Rourke's demand for mandatory buyback program for firearms and Buttigieg's insistence on focusing on more moderate gun-control proposals.
It's not just the topic that was already played out, either. The exchange involved two candidates whose combined support in RealClearPolitics' polling aggregation is 8.4 percent. The courage comment drew a little attention, but mostly at the expense of what little time there was on stage for substantive exchanges, and seems unlikely at best to change the arc of any voter's decision.
That's actually a pretty good description of the whole event, in fact. Did any candidate say anything new and groundbreaking in the debate, or have time to seriously probe the proposals of their opponents? Did those opponents have an opportunity to provide a substantive rebuttal to those criticisms?
This is where Gabbard's earlier, if self-serving, criticism of the format hits the mark. Even in 186 minutes, no one got much of a chance to discuss their positions or respond substantively to what legitimate criticisms and differences emerged, and few got much time in the spotlight at all. According to The Washington Post's calculations, Warren got the most talk time, with just over 23 minutes — in part because other candidates took aim at her more often than before. Biden came in second at 16.6 minutes stretched out over the three-hour marathon, followed by six candidates who got between 11.7 and 13.2 minutes of attention. Gabbard came in second-last with 8.2 minutes, a full minute more than first-time debater Tom Steyer.
This format mostly serves media outlets that use the clips for narrative purposes and which then try to make definitive pronouncements about the state of an ambiguous process. Nothing about it is calculated to informing voters about policies and proposals except in the most superficial and vacuous sense. It feels more and more like an anachronistic relic of an era where Americans had few or no methods to watch candidates operate in real time other than the occasional campaign visit or network-television interview.
Now, voters who want to engage have more and far better ways not just to know the candidates but also to challenge their agendas and policies as well. If the DNC can't come up with a better way to highlight their candidates, they and the candidates would be better off dumping these events altogether. The RNC had better take a hard look at this problem before they have to deal with it in 2023, too.
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