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Television

Commentary: The moderators couldn’t control the Democratic debates — and no one wanted them to

US-VOTE-2020-DEMOCRATS-DEBATE
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaks during the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 campaign, hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, Florida, June 27, 2019.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

The candidates argued, interrupted and bulldozed through their allotted time during the second of two Democratic primary debates, and the moderators struggled to keep the conversation on track.

Until, that is, the strongest of the bunch stepped in and seized control: “Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight,” she proclaimed. “They want to know how we are going to put food on their table.” And order prevailed.

Even though she was standing behind a candidate lectern, California Sen. Kamala Harris quickly emerged as the most effective moderator of the debate, teaching the team charged with maintaining order a valuable lesson. We, the audience, don’t want moderators to maintain a tight grip on the proceedings. We want confrontations. Fireworks. Fights. And on Thursday night in Miami, armed with the lessons learned from the Wednesday’s “warm-up,” Harris gave us what we asked for.

NBC’s Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie and Chuck Todd; MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Telemundo’s Jose Diaz-Balart didn’t catch much shade — or heat — following Wednesday’s comparatively congenial meeting of presidential hopefuls, which drew 15.3 million viewers across the three networks. (One exception: Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s sister, who wrote on the congresswoman’s Twitter account, “It’s clear who MSNBC wants to be president: Elizabeth Warren.”) But the moderators, who struggled to contain the squabbling mayors, senators and congresspeople of the bout’s first round, really had their work cut out for them during Thursday’s meeting — or was it melee?

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On the first truly “big” night of the new campaign season, Rep. Eric Swalwell attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for everything from his economic policy to his audacious crime of growing old. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand interrupted everyone, every few minutes, rolling over their time as if it was a plush Persian rug. Harris overshot her one-minute allowance more times than Sen. Bernie Sanders summoned President Trump as the embodiment of evil, or spiritual author Marianne Williamson invoked his sway over his supporters.

Lucky for viewers, the overwhelmed first-hour moderators essentially handed their jobs over to the candidates they were meant to be grilling, and that’s when things went from interesting to exciting.

Holt initially described the pack as “spirited,” but the esteemed anchor looked visibly unsettled at the way things were going, gulping as he tried to ask a fairly unremarkable question about China’s influence. Between the news team’s repeated pleas of “you’ll get your chance,” Guthrie forgot how Biden voted in a show of hands on the question of healthcare for the undocumented, and had to apologize when she asked him to defend the position. And after Diaz-Balart failed, twice, to make sense out of entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s complex equation for keeping the middle class afloat, his glasses slid down his nose like a white flag of surrender.

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Whether by happenstance or simply an understanding that extended, direct exchanges between opponents make for compelling television (and ratings catnip), Maddow and Todd assumed the hot seat in the second hour only to let Harris interrogate Biden on his record on school integration, creating one of the debate’s defining moments. (The referees’ mental coffee break went on so long that Biden eventually cut himself off, saying, “Anyway, my time’s up.”)

And for all the high drama, the candidates’ parries and thrusts also managed to meet the moment. Politics in 2019 requires televised debates to deliver more than a series of stump speeches straight out of 1983.

With their range of backgrounds reflecting the unprecedentedly diverse Democratic field, the moderators seemed determined to flip the script on debates of yore — when they could get a word in edgewise.

Their questions about healthcare, immigration and foreign policy were at least partly crafted to illuminate the divide between old school and new school.

By the end of the debate, it was clear that while the moderators may have lost, the American people won. On Night 2 of the Democratic debates, we heard a rousing argument among a collection of smart, passionate folks eager to hold the most powerful office in the land.

It turns out Harris was wrong about something, after all: America does want a food fight. As long as there’s a leader ready to clean up the mess.

Lorraine Ali is the Los Angeles Times television critic.


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