Last Night’s Debate Was Like Being Trapped Inside a Headache

Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, hosted by CBS News, was like being trapped inside someone else’s headache. The format was choppy and utterly antithetical to any coherent exchange of ideas. The two main moderators, Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King, lost control of the proceedings early and often as five candidates — Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Steyer — bulldozed each other trying to get to the sixth candidate on stage, front-runner Bernie Sanders.

The result was a drawn-out verbal car accident that wasn’t even over when it was over. O’Donnell misread a cue toward the conclusion and announced the debate was done, but was immediately corrected; there was actually time for one more segment, this one about every candidate’s favorite motto, or something. “Time flies when you’re having fun,” quipped an embarrassed King as they faded to commercial.

No, not fun. This debate was the very living absence of fun, a void of competence, and a black eye for the democratic process. I did not have the closed captioning activated on my television as I watched, but if I had, I imagine the transcript would have read something like, LKLDFGJOKR LET ME FINISH ERPJGNGPZPQ WAIT A MINUTE WERGPOTRWPT LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT LFCKGKDHXC YOU’RE OUT OF TIME SDFKJGPWPR AND LET’S TAKE A COMMERCIAL BREAK FEATURING BLOOMBERG ADS.

It was a double-barreled fiasco for CBS News and the moderators. Not only did the unrestrained cacophony bury most of the substance, but what substance there was wasn’t very substantial.

Case in point: On the day of the debate, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told people to begin preparing for potential disruptions caused by an expected outbreak of the coronavirus. GOP Sen. Mitt Romney pointedly attacked the Trump administration for its lack of preparedness regarding the virus. In response, Trump’s pet TV economist, Larry Kudlow, announced the threat was “contained,” even as the Dow Jones index had plummeted around 1,800 points in 48 hours.

Epidemics, like war, are great for TV ratings. Also like war, epidemics make well-lubricated vehicles for the establishment of racist quarantines and other draconian acts. That being said, people are genuinely worried about this, and the Trump administration is well on its way toward bungling its response in spectacular fashion. For the Democratic candidates, the topic was a ball on a tee: An opportunity to deliver an important discussion of public health combined with an opportunity to criticize the man they seek to unseat.

Yet, according to The New York Times, the subject of the coronavirus outbreak was not brought up by the moderators for a full 83 minutes. Mike Bloomberg tried to shoehorn some thoughts about it into an answer at one point, but found himself shut down by King. “We’ll talk about that in the next segment,” she said while interrupting him. New York City’s “Naked Cowboy” and a ban on large sodas had made an appearance in the discourse, but the coronavirus had to take a number and wait.

Mike Bloomberg’s big verbal snuggle with China became another instance of the moderators dropping the ball. When the former New York mayor attempted to describe China’s repressive regime as having democratic qualities, only Sanders managed to call him on it.

“In terms of whether he’s a dictator, [Xi] does serve at the behest of the Politburo, their group of people,” Bloomberg said of the Chinese leader.

“I was amazed at what Mayor Bloomberg said a moment ago,” Sanders replied. “He said that the Chinese government is responsive to the Politburo, but who are they responsive to?”

Bloomberg’s fortune is heavily invested in China, which explains his reluctance to criticize his own business partner. The fact that the moderators failed to address this seemingly disqualifying conflict was a glaring omission, which in itself speaks to the broad reach China enjoys with U.S. businesses, including the media.

Another glaring flaw in the debate manifested itself in a loud, interruption-happy, seemingly partisan audience that upended the proceedings at every opportunity. Time and again, Bloomberg was cheered and Sanders was vociferously booed, causing him at one point to shout back, “Really?” when the audience erupted at him for praising literacy programs in Cuba. When Sanders was critical of billionaires in general, the crowd booed him again.

Ticket prices for the debate were running in the thousands of dollars, which may explain why exploitative capitalism had such a boisterous cheering section.

With the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday looming only days away, there was a sense of desperation in the air. The attacks on Sanders were like a series of gang tackles in a football game, but the other five candidates often bounced off each other as they rushed to knock down the front-runner. Of the five candidates not named Sanders, only Elizabeth Warren truly managed to put forth a coherent, un-abrasive case for her candidacy.

Sanders had one glaringly poor moment in an otherwise solid night. When Bloomberg pressed the Vermont senator on several of his past votes on guns, Sanders attempted to pivot the question to Biden’s votes on trade, an awkwardly attempted bit of debate jujitsu that clunked audibly. For the most part, however, he absorbed the expected assault and landed a number of solid counterpunches in return. His concluding comments on the biggest misconception about his campaign — “that the ideas that I’m talking about are radical” — was a winning capstone to his evening.

As for the others? Bloomberg gruesomely noted after a question about stop-and-frisk that, “I know a lot of Black people that if they were white, it would have been a lot easier for them,” even as Warren tied him in knots once again over his treatment of women. Later, he very nearly announced to the world that he had “bought” Congress. He was better than last time, but that isn’t saying much; when the bar is painted on the ground, it’s easy to get over.

Pete Buttigieg brought his talent for smarm to an entirely new level, and deployed a deeply annoying tactic throughout the debate to maintain relevance while disrupting his opponents. When a rival candidate tried to answer a question, Buttigieg would drone, “Let’s talk about that, let’s talk about that, let’s talk about that,” like a fly buzzing near the fan on an indolent summer afternoon. It did him no favors. Buttigieg needed a big night, and it didn’t happen for him.

Klobuchar and Steyer found themselves lost in the noise pollution for much of the evening, and neither was able to make a deep impression on the eve of a make-or-break primary for both campaigns. Steyer repeatedly attempted to elevate the discourse, particularly on climate disruption, but the moderators were in the mood for a different sort of disruption and allowed his pointed statements to be subsumed. Klobuchar tried to use the late Paul Wellstone as a lifeboat, but the conservative Democrat’s invocation of a progressive icon fell flat.

Joe Biden yelled quite a bit, and then yelled some more, and then did some more yelling to break the tedium from all his yelling. He had an air of confidence that has been absent in his other debate showings, due perhaps to his possibly misplaced faith in the outcome of Saturday’s primary. He tried several times to lay the carnage of gun violence at Sanders’s feet but got badly tangled in the process, at one point making the incredibly incorrect claim that 150 million people in the U.S. had been killed by guns since 2007. Joe, in the end, was Joe; that hasn’t been enough since his campaign began, and it wasn’t enough again last night.

The whole thing, in my view, was a wash. It is all but certain that no viewers were convinced of anything new beyond the fact that the moderators were terrible and CBS should be ashamed of itself.

Not since Al Gore squared off against James Stockdale in 1992 has a debate fallen into such stark calamity. That mess wasn’t the network’s fault; Stockdale had no business on that long-ago stage. It’s hard to lay blame entirely on the participants from Tuesday night; thanks to the moderators, the entire affair was like trying to hold a debate in a running blender.

There are two more debates left before the general election. Let us hope they rise above this last bucket of bad noise. I’m annoyed I had to watch it. An old-fashioned TV test signal would have been more informative, and far less grating.