Commentary: The moderators couldn’t control the Democratic debates — and no one wanted them to
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?
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.
10 more candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination gathered at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts for Thurday’s debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang; South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg; former Vice President Joe Biden: Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Sen. Kamala Harris of California; Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York; former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet; and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, from left, were among the 10 Democratic hopefuls taking the stage for the second night of the Democratic primary debate.(Byrnn Anderson / Associated Press)
Former vice president Joe Biden, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont greet the audience before Thursday’s debate. The two are currently leading in most Democratic primary polls.(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)
California Sen. Kamala Harris, left, and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand speak at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in Miami.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, left, and Rep. Eric Swalwell of California on the second night of the first 2020 Democratic primary debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris, from left, had center stage at Thursday’s Democratic primary debate in Miami.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet and Eric Swalwell, from left, before the second night of the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign.(Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images)
Kamala Harris singles out Joe Biden, left, during an answer Thursday night. At center is Bernie Sanders.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
From left, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand respond to the moderators on the second night of the Democrats’ first primary debate for 2020.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
From left, presidential hopefuls author and writer Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and entrepreneur Andrew Yang participate in the second Democratic primary debate.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden greets supporters after the second Democratic primary debate.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, left, and Sen. Kamala Harris of California shake hands after the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season.(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, right, shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden at the end of the Democratic primary debate.(Wilfredo Lee / Associated Press)
Lacey Hunt, a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, takes a photo of the television while watching the second Democratic presidential debate at a party in Atlanta on June 27, 2019.(David Goldman / Associated Press)
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.
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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