CNN’s Democratic Debate Was a Frantic Lightning Round, But Still an Improvement (Column)

Tuning into the second round of Democrat debates on CNN, you’d be forgiven for briefly mistaking it for a boxing match. Bombastic highlight reels trumpeting a showdown between “The Progressives” (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), assorted moderates (chiefly Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke) and gauzy meme generator Marianne Williamson opened the night. Red, white and blue flashed by as a voiceover befitting a summer disaster movie blockbuster intoned that tonight, 10 candidates would be battling it out “for the heart of the party.” If the candidates walked onstage and immediately started brawling, I wouldn’t have blinked twice. 

None of this, to be clear, is surprising. For all the confusion regarding who of the many, many Democrat candidates for president may eventually break away from the pack, the interest in the process is too high for networks to avoid making it a spectacle. As a network that lives and dies by the increasingly intense demand to feed the 24-hour news cycle, CNN indulges that impulse more than most, and going into Tuesday night, had already taken steps to make the case both for and against its own fitness for hosting these debates. 

On the one hand, its methodology for splitting the vast pool of candidates (20 in total) is far more sound and rooted in logic than NBC’s purposefully random shuffling of the deck. Drawing from three tiers — the early frontrunners, their closest competitors and the remaining candidates who polled and fundraised high enough to squeeze in — guaranteed a more level playing field, or at the very least, a more balanced night of debates than NBC managed when its randomization stranded Warren on a night without any of her stiffest competition. (It is, however, worth noting that this first night of debates included solely white candidates; all the current non-white candidates in contention will be up against each other tomorrow.) Ahead of Tuesday, CNN also touted its format tweaks, notably that it would give each candidate 60 seconds for both an opening and closing statement, and be stricter about cutting candidates off if they cut into another’s time. 

On the other hand is the concerning way that CNN handled its announcement of which candidates would be sparring on which nights. “The Draw,” an hour-long special in which anchors vamped in between the arduous task of picking names out of a box, represented CNN at its showboating worst. For all its talk of taking the task seriously, the network still went by its typical playbook and tried to turn the democratic process into a nail-biting sport, the better to goose its ratings as long as possible. 

The first night of CNN’s debates reflected the bifurcated nature of its competing instincts. After the startings bells and whistles, the 10 candidates gave their opening statements, which pushed the actual debate portion of the night even further from the beginning, but also served to remind the audience who everyone onstage was and why they were there. Many were lifeless, but some — notably Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and Warren — got some fighting words in right out of the gate that distinguished their approaches from the rest of the pack. 

Unfortunately the actual debate that followed quickly proved how hard it is to wrangle 10 people without either letting some go too long or cutting everyone too short. Jake Tapper and Don Lemon tried so hard to keep everyone to their allotted time that the exchanges quickly turned into frantic lightning rounds, barely allowing anyone’s points to breathe, let alone sink in for the viewers. Tapper also took the night’s predetermined theme of “Those Wild Progressives Sanders and Warren versus the world” so seriously that he rarely asked a question outside of it. Dana Bash, the night’s second moderator, fared a bit better with the rhythm simply by asking questions more slowly and letting candidates finish a sentence before cutting them off. Amidst the elbowing for space, split screens did some heavy lifting by making room for revealing reactions, like Warren’s “oh really?” eyebrow raises as others on the outer reaches of the stage visibly tried to keep up. (Williamson, who popped on a less competitive stage before, was noticeably neutered in this format until deep into the night.)

Even with their consistently truncated time, though, the leaders of the pack confirmed why they’ve had the most traction in between the anchors’ increasingly urgent “thank you” attempts to shut them down. (Others, notably John Delaney, got substantially more time to speak than expected and still failed to make their case.) Buttigieg drove home to enthusiastic applause his popular point that Democrats shouldn’t try to be Republicans in order to win. Warren landed a solid blow to Delaney with a frustrated exhale as she asked why he was spending so much time talking about “what we can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” thus cementing her status as the rare person onstage going for a positive “all of us are better than Donald Trump” stance that resonated with the Detroit audience. Sanders, never one for quieting down when asked, got a particularly sharp verbal elbow in at one point with a curt dismissal of John Hickenlooper’s assertion that he doesn’t understand a proposed Medicare For All bill (“I do, I wrote the damn bill”). So in all, CNN’s first debate felt more substantive than NBC’s first try, but not especially because the format was radically different. It just took a marginally more competitive matchup of candidates to make the proceedings feel more substantial, even if CNN mandated they speak roughly at the speed of light.