Commentary: We need debates; just not these free-for-alls

The moderators for Tuesday’s debate couldn’t control the crosstalk and shouting; that can’t be repeated.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

There was one particularly cringe-inducing moment at the end of the Democratic debate Tuesday night that summed up all the embarrassments of the previous two hours.

“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell, with a palpable sense of relief, announced that the debate was over. But her co-moderator, Gayle King, immediately jumped in to correct her: “Time for one more break, Norah. Time flies when you’re having fun!”

O’Donnell looked surprised and none too happy. Then the commercial break took place and the moderators reappeared; only to say that, yes, the show really was over.

And while the two-hour debate in Charleston, South Carolina, had its enlightening moments, a viewer couldn’t help but feel that the whole thing had careened, more than slightly, out of control.

The worst of it was the yelling and crosstalk by the seven candidates, some of whom were making a desperate last stand in their campaigns. That dynamic often made it impossible to know what was being said.

At one point, well into the second hour, front-runner Bernie Sanders and indefatigable challenger Pete Buttigieg indulged in a nonstop yelling match. Not a word was intelligible for what felt like five interminable minutes, though it probably was more like 30 seconds.

There must be a better way. I can think of two possible reforms, neither of which I like very much. The first is simple enough: Moderators should have the ability to shut off the microphones of candidates whenever they refuse to respect the time limits.

Granted, this would be an extreme measure, one that could come off as disrespectful and jarring. But it might be preferable to the shoutfest.

The second is to have consequences — sanctions, if you will — for repeated offenses, and to clearly explain them in advance and enforce them during the debate. For example, a candidate might lose time to talk later by failing to abide by the rules.

I don’t like this either. It feels far too much like disciplining unruly toddlers by sending them to the timeout corner.

And let’s acknowledge that some conflict is good. The whole idea is for the candidates to engage with each other, not to give speeches.

Marc Caputo, a political reporter for Politico, made this point by objecting to what he called “topic tyranny, where the moderators shut down the candidates onstage because they want to cram more questions in about more issues.”

Their effort to span lots of topics is understandable. If moderators don’t move things along, they open themselves up to legitimate criticism. In this debate, plenty of important subjects never got a full airing. The global climate crisis, for one.

It’s not as if Tuesday night was singular in its chaos. I’ve been closely watching this round of Democratic debates since the first one in June, when NBC’s moderators (five of them in rotating shifts) attempted to corral 20 candidates split over two consecutive nights.

At one point in that Miami kickoff debate, a technical glitch resulted in strange voices drifting in from offstage while a question about gun violence was repeated, to no avail. For a few moments, the whole lineup of candidates onstage looked confused.

Some of these 10 debates have been more successful than others. Certainly some moderators have been better traffic cops than the CBS crew was last night.

I’ll give cable-TV anchors credit for being generally more skilled at crowd control, showing their experience from moderating the ubiquitous, cross-talking panel discussions that characterize the 24/7 news networks.

But nearly all the debates have been marred by a setup that encourages petty infighting, superficiality, and “gotcha” moments yet fails to provide voters with what they need: A true sense of the candidates and their positions; not from the safety of a TV ad or the softer focus of a “town hall,” but in real time and under pressure. Understand, I don’t want these debates to be abandoned. I just want them to be better.

The next chance will come on March 15 in Phoenix. With more than two weeks to make some serious adjustments, the debate planners need to get their house in order.

Tuesday night’s painful free-for-all should be the last of its kind.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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