Some of the blame for CBS News’s chaotic, messy Democratic Party primary debate Tuesday night can be laid at the feet of the party itself — to a degree, CBS was depicting the chaos and mess of a party badly divided in the midst of a bruising campaign. But a share of ignominy also goes to CBS itself, which botched its time in the spotlight in part by insisting that it, and not the candidates, deserved that spotlight.
In enlisting five of its journalists — moderators Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell along with the network’s Margaret Brennan, Major Garrett, and Bill Whitaker — CBS edged close to the seven candidates onstage. The ratio suggests a bit of confusion as to which side of the dais is the evening’s main event, and while the impulse to promote the newsgathering prowess of CBS’s organization is understandable, a more limited moderating team might have worked to provide clarity to the never-more-fractious team of enemies on the stage. The moderators, tag-teaming at random, seemed to lack authority over a group of candidates who badly needed it, and their reassertions read as sour and ineffectual. “I know it goes fast, but a minute and a half is really a long time,” King noted at one point. King and O’Donnell seemed unable to manage their own time, with O’Donnell calling an end to the debate even as King insisted there was time for one last question: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” (Who’s “you” here?) Then the pair came back from a commercial break to actually end the debate with no further questions asked.
The debate’s time restrictions were imposed in part to toggle at random between a suite of topics that jumped randomly and at times mindlessly: Was it worth cutting off derailing, say, Elizabeth Warren on the topic of student debt in order to allow time, later, for King to ask Michael Bloomberg if New Yorkers are “living longer because of your policies” on oversized sodas and public smoking? That question seems to represent, in miniature, the odd lean of this debate, at times seemingly designed not to document drama but to continue fomenting it. That means treating Bloomberg — widely seen as the worst performer in the previous week’s debate — as gently as possible, while treating current national frontrunner Bernie Sanders with a line of questioning oftenly actively hostile. Even King’s framing of innocent questions seemed spurious of Sanders: Introducing the final segment, a banally Oprah-fied and ineptly phrased two-part question about “the words the candidates live by,” King noted that the segment would be personal, chiding Sanders that “we know how much you enjoy that” before he’d said a word.
A debate in which the candidates met one another in hostility and viciousness might have served its newsgathering purpose more effectively by meeting them in turn with clarity. Even in asking the candidates about their “personal mottoes” in the woebegone not-quite-final segment (the one that preceded O’Donnell calling time prematurely), King could not restrain herself from talking over the prolix but deeply felt statements of Amy Klobuchar and of Joe Biden. The candidates came to the debate with no clear brief — having, led by Warren, been perceived to have done massive damage to Bloomberg the week before, they were led by the moderators to turn on Sanders, a more effective debater. They instead burst into a sort of knives-out nightmare whereby at one point Biden and Klobuchar were angrily warring over who was responsible for the so-called “Boyfriend Loophole.” Klobuchar sitting, her face a mask of grim refusal to engage, as Biden interrupted her answer to explain his past history of advocacy was a strange spectacle, not least because of how unmanaged it seemed. How was this where the debate had ended up?
This, again, isn’t all on the candidates. Some of the questions were intended as quick hits on Sanders. Others seemed apparently intended as simple random toggles to the next thing, sacrificing ample opportunity for the conversation to push past first-order insults. The candidates wanted to dig in, and when — rarely — granted time to do so, managed to make real points. (Warren’s second attack on Bloomberg over his organization’s use of NDAs hit hard, again.) The frequent spectacle of four or more candidates with their hands raised, waiting to respond to a point, only to be told the debate was moving on, was striking, and the moderators’ passive-aggressive performance of aggrievement that the candidates wouldn’t play by the tune they set. The debate the candidates wanted to have, one more about philosophies of governance than in halting the proceedings to recite mottoes in the time King would allow before trampling the answer, was vastly more interesting than the one CBS viewers got.