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The Messy NBC Democratic Debate Proves the Need for a Tier System (Column)

The opening night of the first debates of the 2020 Democratic Party primaries brought — even by the standards of such way-far-out confrontations between candidates for whom the election remains a far-off dream — vastly more empty drama than new information. But then, that may have been by design.

NBC News’s organization of the debates, using a “purple” and an “orange” group of two groups, both mixed with top-tier contenders and undercard contenders, resulted in a lopsided staging at which one candidate placed in the middle also became an insurmountable center of gravity. Sen. Elizabeth Warren was effectively the only candidate onstage widely considered a major contender for the presidency, give or take former Rep. Beto O’Rourke or Sen. Cory Booker; the subsequent night would feature Warren’s main rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. Early on, Warren noted that “I’m with Bernie” on the issue of Medicare for All, as if to attempt to jump ahead to the portion of the debate when she might actually face down a real rival face-to-face.

Warren did not meaningfully attempt to engage her rivals, nor was she forced to. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, the most effectively pugilistic of the evening’s outsider candidates (despite former Rep. John Delaney’s perpetually thwarted attempts to find his way into a silence before being cut off), tended, for instance, to focus his barbs at Beto O’Rourke, the Texan former Congressman who seemed to come into focus, finally, as congenitally hazy.

O’Rourke’s substitution of stories for substance got smacked down by de Blasio, then former Housing Secretary Julián Castro, and even, in moments by moderators (as when he was asked to provide a simple yes/no after he’d waxed poetic for a bit in Spanish as if to prove he could), in a manner Warren’s did not. Moderators Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, and José Díaz-Balart, indeed, began with Warren and returned to her throughout the debate’s early going (in conversations about economic justice and health care), as if very cognizant she was capable of setting a tone.

Warren’s voice was so often heard, in fact, that other candidates worked themselves up early into dudgeons from which it would be hard to come down. Perhaps these candidates, Delaney and Rep. Tim Ryan among them, might have been better-served by an undercard candidate in which they might have been more clearly heard without Warren, but they seemed determined to turn this night into an undercard, with all the keyed-up anger and squabbling over rules and procedure that entails. In other segments, the Massachusetts Senator allowed the other candidates, not credibly her rivals, to chew one another up as she sat outside the fray and, given the tight focus on the candidates speaking, not captured on camera.

A portion of the debate controlled by MSNBC’s Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow and beginning at the evening’s halfway point tended to amp up TV-ified tension for its own sake even as the hosts proved themselves a bit unworthy of the task. A prompt to name the U.S.’s greatest geopolitical enemy with as little elaboration as possible provided insight only, seemingly, by accident; Todd especially seemed ill-at-ease in managing the unruliness of the candidates onstage waiting for their moment to speak and utterly botched a strange moment in which an audio mishap provided the control-room feed to the audience, drowning out a question about the Parkland shooting. (In this, Maddow helped; her broad and effusive guffaw seemed perhaps not to meet the moment in which a debate about slain children was about to begin.)

The question had been posed to Warren, and she answered it before allowing conversation to continue around her and largely without her. This, more than any one missed moment, was the missed opportunity of the debate: Not necessarily holding Warren’s feet to the fire, but staging a conversation in which she and her most serious ideological rivals are present. It is pleasantly, dreamily egalitarian to presuppose that all Democratic candidates are equal, but the mere fact of cutting the field to only 20 bows to reality; a further such acknowledgment would entail that there are some folks whose natural talent has brought them farther in this race than others, and that to see those folks together would be more productive than placing Warren and Ryan together. After all, Ryan and his cohort shied from the opportunity of confronting Warren, anyhow.

One wonders how the topics will refresh on Night 2. Warren voiced her thoughts on the economy to a group that tended neither to quibble on small but specific and interesting points (as Sanders might) or to disagree with brash confidence (as Biden might). Those topics will, at least, almost certainly come up again, with the strange absence of someone who spoke with confidence into something of a vacuum. If, say, the topic of climate change — one that debate moderators tend to avoid — was only brought up Wednesday night because of the presence of Gov. Jay Inslee (who has legitimately worked to bring the topic into the mainstream where it belongs), will we not get to hear any of Warren’s main rivals speak on the subject?

Dividing the top 20 Democratic candidates into, say, a front-running ten and a ten lagging behind would be untidy and uncertain. (Even settling on those top 20 was evidently hard enough.) And the Republicans’ having done so in the 2016 conjures the dark memory of candidate Trump, who barely made it to the main event and gradually crept his way to center stage. But superstition is no reason to ditch a precedent that at least revealed something true in 2016 — Donald Trump’s base appeal — as opposed to obscuring most candidates’ true natures in endless clutter and petty squabbles. Placing Warren onstage with Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, and Sanders, along with five more candidates with more clarity and seriousness of purpose than some on Wednesday’s stage, would push the conversation into a place it wasn’t able to arrive. As things stand, Warren is in the enviable position of having set the tone for Thursday’s debate, having thoroughly dominated Wednesday’s proceedings — which is a bit unfair. It’s also a bit unfair that she won’t actually get to speak for herself in a room that, by sheer chance, looks a bit more serious than her own.

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