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Even Candidates Know The Debate Format Is Broken

The past two nights were not meant to be a conversation about issues, but a platform for good TV

It was depressingly clear from the beginning of the Democratic primary debate on Tuesday, July 30 in Detroit, Michigan, the two-night event would not end well for viewers hoping to decide on a candidate for the 2020 election  — which is, theoretically, supposed to be the point of a primary debate.

Each night featured half of the major pool of contenders on stage. The show — and we do mean show — started with a rundown of the candidates in a blockbuster fashion: An announcer bellowed each candidate’s names before they were called out, one-by-one, to walk into the center of a stage so extravagant, CNN’s Oliver Darcy said it took 100 people eight days to build. This was in stark contrast to NBC News’s debate in June, in which the candidates were already standing behind their podiums by the time the cameras went live. But, to CNN’s credit, at least the moderators didn’t ask the candidates to raise their hands on complex policy issues, something NBC did multiple times throughout its debate. It was obvious from the beginning — this was not meant to be a conversation about issues, but a platform for good TV. Even the candidates knew it.

“Instead of talking about automation and our future, including the fact that we automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs, hundreds of thousands right here in Michigan, we're up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines, playing roles in this reality TV show,” Andrew Yang said during his closing statement in the second night of the two-night debate. “It's one reason why we elected a reality TV star as our president.”

Each candidate was given 60 seconds to answer a prompt led by CNN moderators Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon and 30 seconds to rebut another candidate’s answer; if a candidate was attacked by name, they had 30 seconds to respond. Anyone running over their time was immediately cut off by the moderators. Forcing candidates to stick to the allotted time was an admirable attempt at order at an event that traditionally tends to involve confusing crosstalk. But imposing such strict time limits makes it difficult for any candidate to shine through, and reinforces a candidates’ impulse to answer questions with quippy soundbites instead of substantive policy breakdowns.

What made the style of questioning all the more frustrating to viewers hoping for fleshed-out thoughts was how most were pointedly worded to include what many candidates believed were “Republican talking points.” That on its face could serve a benefit — after all, candidates are eagerly chasing Republican votes to oust Donald Trump. But moderators made matters more confusing when they began interrupting the candidates with follow-up questions. There’s a separate time and place for continuous follow-up questions from journalists — it’s called an interview.

Candidates are meant to inform the American public about their own positions, thereby challenging other candidates who may have differing ideas. But even they seemed to veer entirely off-course, choosing instead to stick prepared landings and hit key talking points than contribute to the topic at hand. Case in point: Bernie Sanders, who brought up the 10-20-30 plan in response to a question about reparations — the same answer he gave a student at an April town hall. While the plan would undoubtedly affect low-income Black Americans, it is not designed specifically as reparations, yet none of the moderators attempted to bring him back to the question at hand. Instead, they simply honored the end of his time window, which ran the risk of leaving viewers with the wrong impression of the complexities of reparations. There has to be a happy medium between interrogation-style interviews and allowing candidates to air self-serving statements.

The questions themselves also seemed geared towards not just interrogating differences, but stoking fights. Amy Klobuchar, for example, was asked which of the candidates on stage didn’t seem “genuine” about their platforms; moderators posed other candidates with the question of whether Sanders’ Medicare-For-All plan was “political suicide.” On night two, the camera lobbed back and forth as Joe Biden and Cory Booker, and then Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard, parried; you’d be forgiven for feeling like you were watching a debate of two people at a time rather than ten.

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But this is what debates have morphed into since the first televised night in 1960 between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. (Even that was an exercise in optics: Kennedy wore makeup, which made him look more telegenic than Nixon, and many people believe that swung the polls in his favor.) It’s absurd to expect some of the most powerful politicians in a single party to maintain order during a two and a half hour spectacle that could decide the future of the country they hope to govern. Look at 2016’s Republican primary debates, a messy fight in which very little actual policy was discussed across multiple handfuls of candidates. Entertainment — not enlightenment — led the narrative then, and look where it’s gotten us.

These CNN debates felt even messier, with candidates spending more time attacking each other’s past decisions than selling their own platforms. That, in part, was to be expected — Harris told Anderson Cooper that she “did expect to take hits” from other candidates after Gabbard in particular criticized her work as Attorney General for California. But trapping candidates into calling out specific candidates (rather than policies) doesn’t give Americans the answers they’re looking for when it comes time to eventually vote.

And though it is important, interrogating the past is just one part of the political equation. After years of false promises, voters are trying to determine who they believe would lead effectively. Neither night really served to answer that question; if you want to figure out whose policies best align with your views, you’d be better served navigating the labyrinth of official websites, Medium posts, and social media accounts that are now standard for any political campaign (and which many candidates found new and sometimes awkward ways to plug onstage).

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Voters don’t just want or expect transparency in an increasingly-connected world; they deserve it from their representatives — and yes, the president is meant to be one of those spokespeople, however false that may feel right now. If we can tweet a candidate at any minute, it’s not a stretch to ask them to engage in dialogue with us, rather than at their competitors. That kind of in-fighting does more to confirm people’s suspicions that politics is an exclusionary club; wall-to-wall analysis and high-def coverage stoking such fires can only make the distrust worse.

By the end of the debates, the most recurrent soundbites were platitudes and campaign slogans voters have heard before, punctuated by an occasional callout against Trump. And sure, these one-liners and clapbacks were entertaining; that’s precisely the issue. The theatrical use of political debates as entertainment has finally failed us, and expecting different results from the same tactics is almost guaranteed to leave viewers without any real answers.