Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

As the historian Kevin Kruse put it:

Although the moderators could have done a better job (I’ll get to that in a bit), the format itself is the real problem. CNN deserves credit for holding one-hour, one-candidate town halls with many of the contenders earlier this year. But how many viewers can make that sort of time commitment? The debates are what truly matter, and they are broken.

One alternative would be to schedule six hours of prime time over three nights for 15-minute interviews. You could actually accommodate all 24 candidates, and it would be a vast improvement over 15-second responses. Another idea comes from my former Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates: bring in groups of two or three candidates for 15-minute rounds and have an open discussion. “The point is,” he said on Twitter, “there are much better ways to distribute the precious airtime.”

Even within the ridiculous constraints of the multi-candidate format, though, the moderators could have done better. In the first round, Chuck Todd took a lot of well-deserved heat with his demand for one-word answers to complicated policy questions (grunt once for “yes,” twice for “no”). This time, critics have targeted Jake Tapper for tossing undiluted Republican talking points at the Democrats and for all but encouraging the candidates to verbally assault each other. Tom Jones, who writes the newly renamed Poynter Report (and who, oddly enough, is a fan of Todd’s moderating style), described it this way:

“Tapper’s moderating strategy appeared to be nothing more than antagonizing the candidates into disagreeing with one another. Many of his questions were a version of, ‘Why is (such-and-such candidate) wrong?’

“That’s different than the approaches of fellow moderators Dana Bash and Don Lemon. Bash was the star of the night, asking candidates to state and defend their policy ideas — which is the point of a debate when voters are still trying to figure out who everyone is and who they might support. Lemon, meanwhile, started many of his questions with a very solid, ‘Tell us why you’re the best candidate to …’

“It’s not Tapper’s job to make the candidates look good or bad, but the leaders of the Democratic party could not have been happy that the tone of the debate was so nasty and that nastiness was often a direct result of Tapper’s questions.”

Or as the pollster Matt McDermott put it (via The Washington Post): “Imagine CNN asking in a Republican debate: ‘Democrats want to ensure health care for all Americans. You want to kill people. Care to respond?’”

So who won? I have no novel observations. Like just about everyone, I thought Elizabeth Warren was the week’s clear winner on both substance and style. They say you shouldn’t punch down, but her evisceration of some guy named John Delaney was one for the ages. Biden was OK, and much better than he was in June, even though he screwed a few things up and is already getting roasted for being disingenuous about his past and for not knowing the difference between a website and a text message. He was energetic, fought back, and launched a few attacks of his own. If Biden is going to drop in the polls, I’d say it won’t be quite yet.

Harris, who strikes many people (including me) as uniquely positioned to unite the progressive and moderate wings of the party, took a big step back from her breakthrough moment during the first round of debates. She blew it in several ways, including substance: she seemed utterly incapable of explaining her new health-care proposal coherently. That was a lost opportunity given the reservations people have over a pure single-payer Medicare for All plan on the one hand and the reluctance to simply nibble at the edges of Obamacare on the other.

Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, and especially Cory Booker all did well and probably deserve one more shot. But honestly, at this point it’s hard to imagine that the nominee will be anyone other than one of the frontrunners — Biden, Warren, Harris, and Bernie Sanders. We deserve to hear from the four of them directly. The others can be relegated to undercards and other events.

What do the media owe us in televised debates? Substance, focus, and seriousness of purpose. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that this is the most important election of our lifetime. But the stakes may be nothing less than a recommitment to democracy versus a continued slide into authoritarianism.

Grunt once if you agree, twice if you disagree.

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Debate does little to stop Bernie’s media-fueled momentum

Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.
Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There are few story lines the media love more than “Clinton is in trouble.” Just saying it out loud brings back warm, gauzy memories of Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and Whitewater, of Benghazi and private email servers.

So I suspect there was almost nothing that could have happened at Sunday night’s Democratic debate to change the narrative that Bernie Sanders is surging and Hillary Clinton is hanging on for dear life.

None responded to the moment more predictably than Glenn Thrush of Politicowho opens by writing that Clinton’s attacks on Sanders “reinforced his characterization of her as an establishment politician so desperate she’d say anything to win,” and that the Vermont senator represents “an existential threat” to her candidacy.

The Washington Post’s lead story on the debate, by Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker, offers a calmer version of the same idea, with phrases such as “she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch” and a reference to “the newly potent threat Sanders poses to Clinton in her second White House run.” For good measure, the Post’s Chris Cillizza pronounces Bernie a winner and Hillary a loser.

In fact, those of us who watched—and it’s not likely there were many of us given that it took place in the middle of a holiday weekend—saw nothing all that dramatic.

Sanders, as usual, shouted and did a decent job of getting his points across. Clinton, as usual, was in command of the issues, though there’s no doubt she went after Sanders far more than in the previous three debates. Martin O’Malley, as usual, was there.

My own sense was that this was Clinton’s weakest performance, but still generally fine. I thought her worst moment was her closing remarks about sending a campaign aide to Flint, Michigan, to look into the drinking-water crisis. Why didn’t she go there herself? But I’ve seen plenty of commentary to the contrary. For instance, Paul Volpe and Quynhanh Do of The New York Times call it “her best moment of the night.”

But because the prospective voters who did not watch are going to depend on the media to tell them what happened, the takeaway is going to be that Clinton failed to stop Sanders’s momentum. That’s not wrong, just simplistic.

On the issues, I thought Clinton bested Sanders on guns, health care, and foreign policy, whereas Sanders was better on Wall Street and campaign-finance reform.

Clinton’s argument against Sanders’s newly released health-care proposal, which calls for a single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance (see Jonathan Cohn at The Huffington Post for details), isn’t really fair.

No, Sanders would not scrap the Affordable Care Act. But even liberal Democrats inclined to support single-payer are sure to recall what a horrendous slog it was to get the ACA passed. My guess is they’re disinclined to go back for another round.

“If Democrats couldn’t pass single-payer with a Senate supermajority, how would Sanders do it with a Republican House and, at best, a narrow Senate edge?” asks David A. Graham at The Atlantic. “She [Clinton] knows the limitations of health-care politics better than almost anyone.”

Though it might not have been immediately evident, Sanders may have seriously wounded himself with his answers on foreign policy. Despite offering some unconvincing caveats, he sounded like he’s all but ready to emulate Ronald Reagan and send a cake to the Iranian mullahs. Twice Sanders said the United States should work with Iran, to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power and to defeat ISIS. Let’s roll the tape:

But I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.

But the immediate task is to bring all interests together who want to destroy ISIS, including Russia, including Iran, including our Muslim allies to make that the major priority.

I have to agree with Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who says of Sanders that “it’s blindingly apparent that not only does he not understand foreign policy and national security, he simply doesn’t care to know more.”

NBC News moderators Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell did a good job of keeping things on track and covering a wide range of issues. But when Mitchell pressed Sanders on whether he would support tax increases, I would have liked to see a disclosure that she’s married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

And, finally, some counterintuitive polling wisdom from Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver. His analysis of multiple polls shows that Clinton has an 81 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and a 57 percent chance of winning the New Hampshire primary (where, as this Real Clear Politics compilation shows, Sanders is widely believed to be ahead) on February 9.

If Clinton takes both Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the Democratic nomination will be over.

The debate polling scandal

I’m not going to watch tonight’s Republican presidential debate. I think it’s the first one I’ll have missed. But I do want to offer a quick comment on the use of polls to determine who gets to participate, who gets to stand where, and even—informally—how much time gets allotted to each candidate.

It is, frankly, a scandal. To use national polls to determine who gets heard months before ordinary voters are paying all that much attention is an affront to democracy. OK, now we’re into the final weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire. But this has been going on since last summer.

Moving to the kids’ table tonight are Rand Paul and Carly Fiorina. Paul has been the only candidate to deviate from the belligerent stance on foreign policy favored by the rest of the field. His grasp of the issues had Marco Rubio sputtering like the well-prepped empty shell he is at the last debate. Personally I don’t think Fiorina adds anything, but no one has voted yet.

Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum—every one a current or former senator or governor—never made it onto the main stage.

At one time I believe there were 18 Republican candidates. If I were running one of the cable stations, I’d have gone with three debates on three consecutive nights, each one featuring six different candidates chosen at random. And why not? The cable nets literally have nothing better to do.

The devolution of presidential politics into infotainment is complete.

Will the media call out Trump on his anti-vaxxer nonsense?

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

By any reasonable standard of what constitutes acceptable public discourse, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign should have ended on Wednesday at about 10:50 p.m.

That’s when he set his extravagantly sprayed hair on fire by indulging in some truly dangerous myths about vaccines. It was, by any measure, a deeply irresponsible exercise. I’d call it pandering, except that it’s possible he believes his own foolishness.

It began when CNN debate moderator Jake Tapper invited candidate Ben Carson, a physician, to lambaste Trump for repeating the false claims of the anti-vaxxer movement linking vaccines to autism. Carson responded mildly — too mildly. And that gave Trump an opportunity to pounce.

“I am totally in favor of vaccines. But I want smaller doses over a longer period of time,” Trump began. A few seconds later came this: “Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Sadly, neither Carson nor the other physician-candidate, Rand Paul, wanted to rile the conspiracy theorists they’re hoping to win over. So both men oh-so-respectfully disagreed with Trump while actually endorsing his statement that parents ought to be able to spread out the timetable for their children to get vaccinated.

“It is true that we are probably giving way too many in too short a period of time,” Carson said. Added Paul, who’s traveled down this road before: “I’m all for vaccines. But I’m also for freedom.”

In case you’re not up on all the details, Julia Belluz of Vox offers an overview of the “elaborate fraud” behind the thoroughly debunked link between vaccines and autism. As for Trump’s spread-them-out advice and Carson’s and Paul’s weasely responses, science journalist Tara Haelle wrote in Forbes:

Vaccines are very precisely manufactured to include only what is absolutely necessary to induce enough of an immune response that the body can protect itself against those diseases. So a smaller dose wouldn’t protect a child. It would stick a child with a needle for no reason at all. And spreading out vaccines? That just increases the risks to the children, including leaving them more susceptible to the diseases for a longer period of time.

So what was CNN’s responsibility in promoting Trump’s life-threatening views? Some, such as Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan, took to Twitter to argue that Tapper shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

I disagree. If, God help us, Trump actually got elected president, he’s going to be besieged by anti-vaxxers demanding that he translate his rhetoric into policy. Then, too, Michele Bachmann in 2011 and Chris Christie earlier this year did enormous damage to themselves by embracing the anti-vaccine movement. Why should it be any different this time?

Still, Wednesday night felt like a botched opportunity to educate viewers about the importance of vaccines.

Media reaction to Wednesday night’s anti-vaxxer moment was slow out of the gate, but by later Thursday and on Friday it had picked up. A particularly intriguing tidbit comes from Stat, a life-sciences vertical that’s part of The Boston Globe. According to reporters Eric Boodman and Ike Swetlitz, Trump is both a donor to and supporter of Autism Speaks, which emphatically rejects the anti-vaxxer myth.

In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the most addled take was offered by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes (God love him), who wrote that Trump “surprised everyone, including Dr. Ben Carson, by being well-informed on the use of vaccines. As usual, he was a powerful presence.” You can’t make this stuff up.

The New York Times Tuesday morning had little except for a line in Gail Collins’ column and an item by Margot Sanger-Katz in its liveblog; later in the day it posted a strong article by Sabrina Tavernise and Catherine Saint Louis. The Washington Post published a long post by Michael E. Miller headlined “The GOP’s dangerous ‘debate’ on vaccines and autism.” Here’s how Miller described Carson blowing the big moment Tapper handed to him:

For months, Carson has touted his medical expertise while on the campaign trail. And in the weeks since the first debate, the famed surgeon has risen in the polls as a milder-mannered, more rational alternative to Trump.

Now was his chance for a home run; a big hit as swift and incisive as any surgical operation.

Instead, Carson bunted.

In Politico, Ben Schreckinger speculated that Trump’s “weak command” of the issues — including vaccines — may be the prelude to his long-anticipated decline. “The conversation has moved beyond Donald Trump,” he wrote. Added Jamelle Bouie of Slate: “The good news is that this debate might mark the beginning of the end for Trump, who struggled to tackle substantive questions on foreign policy, his advisers, and what he’d actually do as president of the United States.”

We’ll see. Some 51 percent of respondents to a survey posted at the Drudge Report thought Trump won; Fiorina came in second with just 19 percent. It was totally unscientific, of course, but more than 680,000 people took the time to register their views.

Overall it was a dispiriting night. It was somehow appropriate that it ended with the news that right-wing hatemonger Ann Coulter was ranting on Twitter about the “f—ing Jews.” I mean, really. What else?

The vaccine issue, though, deserves to linger — and fester, and grow, until all but Trump’s most unhinged supporters understand that this man has no business being anywhere near the White House.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org and The Huffington Post.

Obama shakes up the media dynamic in his favor

President Barack Obama’s commanding performance in the third and final debate mattered to the viewers at home, of course. But as we will see in the days ahead, it will matter even more in setting the tone for how the media will cover the campaign in the final run-up to the election.

Pay no attention to the silly pronouncements coming from Gov. Mitt Romney’s side — such as Bret Stephens’ analysis in the Wall Street Journal that Romney succeeded by coming across as “a perfectly plausible president.”

In fact, Romney’s timid me-too rhetoric on issues over which he’d been hammering Obama for months played poorly with the public. New York Times polling expert Nate Silver averaged the instant polls coming out of Monday night’s debate and found that Obama did even better than he had in the second one — a 16-point spread, compared to just 10 points a week ago.

Read the rest at the Huffington Post.

Live debate commentary

Several hundred thousand of my close friends and I will be live-tweeting the presidential debate. I’m at @dankennedy_nu. I’ll also be contributing to the Fox 25 News live blog at www.myfoxboston.com. Hope you’ll chime in.

Talking about the debate on Fox 25

I’ll be talking about the presidential debate tonight at 10:30 on Fox 25 News with Maria Stephanos. There may be some Web chatting during the debate as well. If you’d like to join in, I’ll post details here on Twitter.

At veep debate, reviving a $5 trillion tax-cut argument

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that the vice-presidential debate showed President Obama was right when he accused Mitt Romney of supporting a $5 trillion tax cut that would mainly benefit the wealthy.

The debate in 2 minutes 17 seconds

This is quite possibly the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. (Via Greg Mitchell.)

Obama changes the media narrative — in Romney’s favor

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I argue that, contrary to what Obama supporters will tell you, the president’s poor performance in Wednesday’s debate will matter a great deal in the days ahead.

Blame Jim Lehrer’s comatose moderating style and Mitt Romney’s falsehoods all you like. Obama could have risen to the occasion, and he didn’t.