Debating The Debates

Last night on national television, we heard from ten Democrats who want to be their party’s nominee for our next president. Tonight, we’re going to hear from ten more. To get onstage, these twenty met certain criteria (fundraising and poll numbers). The total number of aspiring candidates is ever higher! 

I won’t attempt to critique last night’s performance of each candidate or the specifics of what they said. That’s beyond my skill set. — If you did miss last night’s event, you can find complete videos or transcripts on the Internet and draw you own conclusions.  

With that said, I did get a couple of general impressions that I’ll share: 

— There is a progressive core of Democrats who believe it’s time for America to renew the energy, ideas and ideals that led our nation to achieve so many positive milestones. Those Democrats were well represented on the stage. (I imagine we will see some of that thinking represented in the debate tonight too.)

— There is also a segment of Democrats who appeared last night who, although progressive on certain issues, are reluctant to challenge the status quo in truly big ways (they claimed they had in the past – maybe so). Such reluctance led them to criticize various Medicare expansion proposals and border “security” positions with words that were close to Republican talking points. (I also recognize that they are from “red” states.) 

It will be interesting to see if that dynamic holds true tonight. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see if the CNN producers and debate narrators handle their chores in a less annoying way.  

Each of this year’s Democratic Party “debates” has been allotted two hours of TV time. However, last night if you subtracted the time spent introducing each candidate as they strolled onto the stage, the narrators’ introductory and interim comments, the breaks for paid commercials, and each candidates opening and closing remarks, viewers were given little more than ninety minutes to hear the ten candidates present specific thoughts on at least a dozen complex and critically important issues.  

The narrators’ rules allowed a one-minute response to each of CNN’s questions. Once the timer reached one minute, the narrator started speaking over the candidate’s comments – often just as their summary point was being made. This really did annoy me. 

I may not possess the keen ear of a TV professional like CNN’s Jake Tapper, but I’ve been in conversations for a lot of years. If I’m actually listening to what’s being said, I know when that person speaking to me is nearing the end of their sentence. Their cadence and wording makes it clear. These debates do have reasons for time rules (commercial breaks if nothing else), but there must be a better way to handle this. 

At our New Trier Dems endorsement sessions, we have a timekeeper with a “30-seconds” sign that is quietly flashed to each speaker. Amazingly, he/she usually wraps up within seconds of their allotted time. Perhaps CNN could budget for a tiny light bulb on each podium. The narrator could click it on when 5 or ten seconds of time remained. The candidate’s words might be rushed, but viewers would at least hear the summary language without someone else’s voice shouting them down. — Or perhaps the CNN narrator could simply say, “ten seconds left” and allow the candidate to finish unmolested. 

The shout-down methods of CNN’s fastidious timekeepers accomplished the opposite of what their event was supposed to produce. Information was lost.  

As the debate went on, I also got a growing feeling that there was something “off” about the questions being asked. At times, they almost felt accusatory. And, for sure, they felt like the narrators were trolling for “gotcha” lines that would keep the polarization pot stirred for future CNN TV discussions.  

Often, the initial question asked about a new subject didn’t call for an “elevator statement” that quickly described the candidate’s position and reasoning. Instead the leadoff question was worded to demand a defensive answer. That’s not all bad. We should see how the candidates handle such confrontation. But those challenging leadoffs happened so often it started to feel like the tone of the entire debate carried a negative vibe. I hope things are different tonight. 

Last month, as I watched the first pair of debates with the glitzy stage setting and the parade of candidates on display, it reminded me a bit of the Miss America Pageant. I thought, “Is this the best procedure we can come up with to determine who we want to be our next president?” 

Thankfully, these debates are only part of the process. The grass roots action starting this fall is when things really take off.  

Nels Howard, NTD Member Since 1973