The fourth Democratic debate was dangerously close to being substantive. For almost three (3!) hours, the twelve (12!) candidates onstage tackled questions on foreign policy, reproductive rights, health care, gun control, big tech, and the opioid crisis. While the other debates — and indeed, the entire 2016 presidential campaign — have been marked by meme-able moments and gaffes, the one co-hosted tonight by CNN and “The New York Times” largely featured candidates who know where they stand and what they wanted to say in order to distinguish themselves from the crowd. For every confusing diversion or stumble, there were far more answers with some actual meat to them. It was, to be frank, a surprising deviation from the norm, which has so often seen moderators and candidates alike fighting to create the splashiest moments possible.
And then, with 15 minutes to go, co-moderator Anderson Cooper turned to the final, most ridiculous question of the evening: “Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized when she and George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship by saying, ‘we’re all different…and we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different.’ In that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us, and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
This question, insomuch as it’s even a question, was disappointing in several ways at once. For one, this was the final question on a night in which the increasingly urgent issue of climate change only came up when candidates sporadically brought it up (and without Washington governor Jay Inslee there to ring the bell of impending global doom, these mentions were still fleeting at best). Sure, it was a long night, but it was a disappointing choice to end on a strange softball when there was still at least one giant elephant in the room waiting to be addressed. The question’s inefficiency showed in the answers; only a few people meaningfully engaged with it, with the vast majority quickly pivoting to deliver broad closing statements.
What’s maybe even more frustrating about this vague attempt at humanizing the candidates, however, is how completely it missed the point of why DeGeneres got blowback in the first place. The reason why that picture of her and George W. Bush initially got so much negative attention wasn’t just because she’s a gay liberal and he’s a Republican president. It was because she’s a gay liberal who claims to be progressive and yet appeared to be friendly with Bush, a president who actively supported harmful anti-LGBTQ legislation and started a catastrophic war that continues to claim thousands of casualties. Degeneres being friends with Bush isn’t on the same level as two family members arguing over a political Facebook post — but you wouldn’t know that from the way she wrapped it in defiant defenses of kindness, nor from Cooper’s framing tonight.
Only one candidate appeared to grasp this distinction. Julián Castro, who also had to answer the question first, said that he understood where DeGeneres was coming from and that he also values befriending people who think differently from himself. But he was also careful to say that it’s important “to hold people to account, especially public servants who have a record,” including Bush. This answer provided far more insight into Castro’s mindset than just about any other that came afterward, and also highlighted how the moderators could have asked a similar question that revealed more than which candidates worked alongside John McCain.
If the CNN and “New York Times” teams were determined to use the DeGeneres controversy in this forum, they could have asked the question in a way that made the candidates seriously consider and explain when “reaching across the aisle” is useful versus indulgent. Instead of making the candidates reach in their back pockets for dusty anecdotes about a Republican being nice to them once, the moderators could have asked about what the candidates might have done about a friendship in which politics became personal. The question could have been about the use (or weaponization) of “civility” in today’s world. It could have been about what it takes for them to draw a line in their personal and professional lives, between the people they say they want to protect and those who might stand in the way. If this debate is part of a job interview for the “leader of the free world,” what could possibly be more relevant than that?