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MSNBC and Washington Post Air Strong, Substantial Democratic Debate (Column)

The Democratic party primary debate in Atlanta ran long (by about 20 minutes) and had a crowded stage of 10 candidates — and yet, relatively speaking, flew by efficiently. After a passel of debates that had been wildly oversubscribed and caught fire more for personality conflict than policy difference, the MSNBC and Washington Post debate was rigorously moderated and governed by questions intended to draw out differences of belief rather than of rhetorical style. It was a refreshing change, and a signal that the debate calendar may be shifting into its more serious season.

The moderators — Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker, and Kristen Welker — deserve special mention for the degree to which thoughtful provocation managed to fit into their elegantly slight questions; the debate covered a great deal of ground, managing to touch on climate change, foreign policy, whether it is even possible to unite Americans anymore, and the legacy of Hillary Clinton.

The last of these launched among the evening’s most impassioned responses from Tulsi Gabbard, plainly an undercard candidate (and one who has not yet qualified for the next debate), seemed fractious and anxious; she, along with, separately, Amy Klobuchar, picked a fight with currently high-flying candidate Pete Buttigieg. In both cases, as well as in an entirely different spat between the pugnacious Gabbard and a relaxed Kamala Harris, the fleeting argument shed a bit of heat but only tended, really, to shed light on just how much better the debate was when the candidates were, well, debating, instead of attempting to pants one another as they’d been doing on previous outings.

A happy medium tended to be struck — with so many candidates still onstage, it would seem almost impossible to allow endless free and open conversation to play out without drowning some candidates out entirely. By moderating more aggressively — up to and including flatly ignoring candidates’ requests to speak, at times — the Maddow-led team was able to create segmented-off opportunities for each candidate to express him- or herself. That Gabbard used hers to go on the attack was interesting and revealing; that Elizabeth Warren seemed a bit recessive spoke to her interesting position at the front of the race; that Buttigieg fended off attacks with apparent slick ease suggests his comfort with the format. Inasmuch as debating is a skill that proves habits of mind, this, rather than the more random and chaotic outings of the season so far, seemed to point the way there.

In all, this was a debate that can be instructive not only as regards the way forward — viewers might suspect that in fairly short order, the problem of what to do with 10 candidates onstage will grow less urgent — but for future seasons. With real and thoughtful questions and the uninterrupted time to respond, the debate comes but a month after a trite and inane question about how Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush are friends. That the subject was the candidates’ respective plans for the nation, and that they were given the time and space to explain, to defend, and at times avenge themselves absent of moderators’ gimmicks, speaks well of MSNBC and the Post.

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