Moderators seemed more focused on instigating a soundbite-y cage match than letting candidates dig into the issues.
Tuesday marked the first night of the second round Democratic primary debates, where Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, Tim Ryan, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, John Delaney, and Steve Bullock breathlessly crammed rebuttals into 15 seconds, attempting to sprint toward a star-maker moment in a field that remains overcrowded. It didn’t help that the moderators skipped major discussion topics in favor of trying to turn the debate into some kind of political cage match.
High points included the candidates talking about healthcare (including whether Medicare for all would strip away options for Americans), and immigration (which Pete Buttigieg referred to as “a crisis of cruelty and incompetence”). Elizabeth Warren so thoroughly roasted John Delaney, that his Wikipedia page was instantly updated to include “cause of death: Senator Elizabeth Warren.” But the 10 Democrats faced an unlikely adversary, and it wasn’t each other: Moderators, and Jake Tapper in particular, seemed determined to goade candidates into fighting amongst themselves.
Tapper repeated a question structure of offering up Republican talking points and having Democrats respond to them, to the extent that Bernie Sanders called him out on it. At one point, Tapper also seemed to nudge centrist Amy Klobuchar into attacking progressive Elizabeth Warren regarding their differences on Medicare for all, by asking, “is Senator Warren correct? Do you just lack the will to fight for it?” It was a single example in a slew of questions that threatened to turn the debate into a political version of the “so you agree, you think you’re really pretty?” Mean Girls moment, with Tapper as Regina George.
The focus on pitting Democrats against Democrats wasn’t just frustrating for viewers who likely tuned in to hear ideas that would help them begin to set the candidates apart, it also left giant gaps in the talking points that even came up, marking a chasm between real issues facing our country and the election, and what could be spun as an attack soundbite.
First up: Despite having a record-breaking number of women running for president, not a single question on reproductive rights or abortion, child care, or paid family leave was asked, even though repeated gutting of reproductive health care across the country is already having ramifications. Kirsten Gillibrand took to Twitter two hours into the debate to specifically call out the oversight, something she’ll almost assuredly bring up on the debate stage when she has her chance this evening.
“We need a president who will prioritize these issues — not treat them as an afterthought,” she wrote. It remains a disturbing reminder that “women’s issues” are still seen as niche women’s issues, rather than political, social, and cultural failings that have to be solved for the betterment of our nation as a whole. It almost suggests an assumption that these issues have been solved simply by virtue of three women being on the stage (like racism ended with Barack Obama’s nomination, remember?).
Similarly, no questions about LGBTQ rights were asked last night. As Charlotte Clymer pointed out on Twitter, the fact that there were no questions on LGBTQ issues “in an era that has seen unprecedented attacks on LGBTQ people” is “really disheartening.” Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, issued a statement shortly after the debate that captured how critical a misstep this was in the Trump era, noting that “omitting any questions about reversing the dangerous attacks President Trump has made against LGBTQ Americans since taking office is a missed opportunity that must be corrected in tomorrow’s debate and all election coverage.” New information even surfaced this week: students who reported being discriminated against because of sexual orientation or gender identity were more likely to have their claims not investigated and dismissed under the Trump admin’s Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, according to The New York Times.
Puerto Rico wasn’t included in topics on the table either, despite historic protests that led to the governor resigning last week. What could have been an opening for candidates to recognize the significance and potential outcomes of this moment — especially for progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who believe that some form of massive government overhaul is imminently necessary — instead became more chances for John Delaney to squeeze his two cents in. In fact, a shocking amount of questions went to Marianne Williamson and Delaney (who served as a Joe Biden stand in and foil to the progressives onstage), who are both polling at zero.
One of the most glaring oversights on questioning relates to the election itself: Where were the questions on election security? During his testimony, Robert Mueller warned that Russia targeting the U.S. elections in 2016 was far from a one-off incident, and several lawmakers have set forth legislation to help secure our 2020 elections. Mitch McConnell, who trended on Twitter this week as #MoscowMitch, has blocked all this legislation, shrugging off election security in favor of his trademark, power-hungry obstructionism. Voter suppression and gerrymandering also didn’t make the cut for debate discussion, but the lack of attention paid to how to protect the election these candidates are attempting to participate in was staggering. It should sound our internal alarm bells. While the debate felt far from a turning point for any candidate, the outcome of who is ultimately selected as the Democratic nominee will be moot if our elections can be tampered with or otherwise unjustly carried out.
Dozens of other issues, including equal pay, disability justice, K-12 education, and criminal justice reform got no questions. As night two unfolds, among the most interesting moments will be seeing if the second batch of candidates attempt to keep the moderators on task. Let’s hope they do.