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PBS and Politico’s Democratic Debate Highlights the Importance of Smarter Questions (Column)

At this point, six rounds into a seemingly endless and interminable election cycle, the Democratic debate routine appeared to be set. An assortment of candidates would take the stage to battle each other, the president, and the same spate of questions over and over again. For a primary that’s about as wide open as they get, the dance was nonetheless starting to feel awfully stale. The December 19 debate, held jointly by PBS and Politico, provided a surprising and welcome change of pace in the mere act of asking new and relevant questions, even as the candidates still found choice moments in which to go at each other’s throats. (This designation does not include the final question in which candidates were tasked with giving a hypothetical gift or “asking for forgiveness” from another candidate, because the less said about novelty debate questions, the better.)

For the most part, moderators Judy Woodruff, Amna Nawaz, Yamiche Alcindor, and Tim Alberta ran down a smart slate of questions relevant to the seven candidates onstage (the lowest number yet), covering topics including the the economy, the pressing realities of climate change, racism, Afghanistan, and taxing the wealthy. Several questions were either brand new to a Democratic debate stage or so relatively ignored up to this point that hearing the candidates speak on the subject felt genuinely jarring. In that respect, it’s a shame that more questions weren’t asked in the same vein as the first question, which concerned the House of Representatives’ vote to impeach Donald Trump. For that question, Woodruff asked every single candidate to explain their support of impeachment and why more Americans don’t agree. Unsurprisingly, most avoided that latter part of the question in order to speak broadly about the constitution, etcetera. But in making every candidate answer it, the debate gave viewers a substantial insight into what each believes on that front without interruption. Sure, it wasn’t as spicy as Pete Buttigieg having to defend holding a lavish fundraiser in a “wine cave,” but it was substantial, and there were several other questions that deserved the same consideration. 

Alcindor in particular had a couple questions that more candidates should have answered.  She asked Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders about their stances on Israel and Palestine. After bringing up the fact that Andrew Yang was the only non-white person onstage tonight, she asked Amy Klobuchar what she, as a white candidate, might say to the many white people made uncomfortable by the fact that ethnic “minorities” are becoming more of a majority with every passing year. (A question most often posed to people of color rather than the white people who most need to consider it.) She asked Sanders and Warren about disproportionate violence against transgender people. Each one of these questions is layered, pressing, and smart, forcing candidates to address issues they largely do not have to in front of a live audience. Accordingly, each answer was far more interesting and revealing than the usual hour of circular conversations on health care generally are. The only thing that could have made them more effective was if Alcindor got to ask them of every candidate, making each think on their feet and be more honest than they, and we, are used to at this point in an otherwise ponderous election process. 

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