What Effect Do the Non-Debates Have on a Political System that is Near Death?

Note to readers: My new Verdict column, "The Intra-Party Fight Among the Democratic Candidates Is Necessary and Healthy," was published this morning.  My column here addresses a related but separate set of issues regarding the Democratic presidential nominating process.

Neil H. Buchanan

Apparently, at least to read some of the pundits on the op-ed page of The New York Times, "the women" either won the most recent Democratic non-debate or at least had some good moments.  Times columnist Frank Bruni, who has carved out a career as that newspaper's almost deliberately uninteresting liberalish lightweight, titled his column "Warren and Klobuchar Teach the Boys a Lesson."  Gail Collins, who is decidedly more interesting than Bruni (when not making offensively lighthearted jokes about Mitt Romney's former family dog), wrote about "Some Wins for the Women."

As a feminist (although I concede that not all versions of feminism consider it possible for men to be feminists at all), this ought to be good news to me.  And it is, I guess.  No matter how low my opinion is of any particular source, those two authors have large readerships, and it is good that this is apparently where we were led by the whole contrived blowup over whether Bernie Sanders said that a woman cannot be elected president or instead said/meant something more nuanced.  As someone who has endorsed Elizabeth Warren for president, I take this as a pleasant surprise.

Why, then, do I so often wish that they would stop staging these events?  And is my reaction to the non-debates actually about the events themselves, or is there something more deeply dysfunctional about the whole politico-media complex at work?

Careful readers might have noticed that I chose my words above especially carefully, discussing other people's reactions to the non-debate rather than offering my own.  That is because I was delaying the admission that I did not watch Tuesday's broadcast.  It seemed a bit odd to start by saying that I think that something I have not watched is a bad thing, because that sounds a bit too much like the censorious parents who freak out when they hear that some movie they have never seen is corrupting young minds.  But please bear with me.

I have not, in fact, watched more than a few snippets of any of the non-debates during this election cycle.  This is for two reasons.  First, I have tried to watch these events in the past, and (as my insistent use of the term "non-debate" suggests) I find them frustratingly empty exercises.  I am not a purist, but I do think that ridiculously short speaking times (and other format problems) make the whole thing silly.

But if my independent judgment were itself somehow important (as I insist on believing it is when it comes to the general election season's non-debates), I could force myself to watch.  That, however, brings me to the second reason that I do not bother to watch.  Because my assessment of these events has in the past only occasionally lined up with the insta-conventional wisdom -- and because these things fade so quickly from memory -- they are only interesting to me from the standpoint of what makes the punditocracy's collective heart flutter and its blood boil.

Maybe, just maybe, a widely held agreement that Tuesday pushed back at the the idea that it is too risky to nominate a woman will have some staying power going forward.  Maybe not, but if it does, it is admittedly difficult to think of anything other than one of these non-debates that could have made that happen.  Without such an event, after all, there would simply have been more cross-charges and angry social media blather coming from all of the candidates and many pundits.

The non-debates, even though they do not (and honestly cannot) force the candidates to engage substantively on any issue that the candidates wish to evade, at least offer some moments of spontaneous engagement.  Directly confronting each other, even in a sometimes canned way, can be valuable, especially when one side of an argument clearly is in retreat.

I have been able to force myself to watch a few clips of this non-debate, and I have perused the transcript, and two moments jumped out at me (only the first of which has anything to do with the Girl Power theme that Bruni and Collins pushed).  One was a moment when Bernie Sanders tried to respond to Warren's charge that she was the only person on the stage who had beaten a Republican incumbent in the last thirty years.

Now, that is an interesting factoid at best, although I can see why Warren was ready with it.  If the argument is that a woman cannot beat the current incumbent, then this not-directly-on-point point is at least something.  But Sanders's response, and Warren's response to his response, was a bizarre moment:
SANDERS: Well, just to set the record straight, I defeated an incumbent Republican running for Congress.
SANDERS: Nineteen-ninety. 
That's how I won, beat a republican congressman.
Number two...
WARREN: Thirty years ago.
WARREN: Wasn't it 30 years ago?
SANDERS: I beat an incumbent Republican congressman.
WARREN: And I said I was the only one who's beaten an incumbent Republican in 30 years.
SANDERS: Well, 30 years ago is 1990, as a matter of fact.
I was not able to find a clip online, which is a shame, because that was simply good TV.  The look of confusion, amusement, and incredulity on Warren's face was priceless.  The problem is that this means nothing as far as the presidency goes.  But it was a fun moment.

More troubling was a question directed to Sanders from one of the moderators: "Sen. Sanders, your campaign proposals would double federal spending over the next decade, an unprecedented level of spending not seen since World War II. How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?"

This is yet another lazy attempt by a journalist who knows nothing about macroeconomics to sound sage.  "Oh, that's a lot of trillions, Senator.  You'll bankrupt us!"  Now, one could argue that the question is merely a followup on points that Biden made earlier in the non-debate and that this was a fair attempt to get Sanders to respond.  That would be fine, except that one need not adopt Biden's framing as if it is the right way to think about it.  Maybe saying, "Vice President Biden has criticized you by saying ..." would have been better, but even that is an example of "centrist bias" at work.

Nonetheless, Sanders ought to (especially after all this time) have a better response than he offered on Tuesday.  One needs to be pithy and clear, whereas Sanders made the major point -- that not fixing the health care system would bankrupt the country -- only elliptically and unconvincingly.

He might even have said, "You've just pointed out that we dramatically increased the federal budget to fight WWII.  We did not go bankrupt because of it, and we spent that money on something extremely valuable.  Well, there are things other than wars that we need to fight, and our country needs to solve those problems by thinking big and changing the way things have always been done.  My proposals do that and even save money in the long run."

Needless to say, Sanders did not say anything like that.  He reverted to his (admittedly accurate and compelling) talking points about the problems with the current system, but a real opportunity was lost.  It was even more frustrating when the questioner then turned to Klobuchar, who returned to her annoying "pipedream" attack on anything that she deems too liberal.

Returning to my overall point, however, there was nothing about the non-debate format that made it more likely for a CNN reporter to ask this loaded and inherently conservative question about federal spending.  She and her colleagues may be accused of being liberals, but they ask this kind of question all the time -- without ever asking Republicans where the money is going to come from to sustain the health care system as it stands (or especially if the ACA were to be repealed).

In the larger scheme of things, the non-debates are ephemeral events.  Having indirectly observed the non-debates in this election season, I have concluded that they do not uniquely stink.  Their shortcomings are the result of a media culture that still cannot shake its presumption that fiscal conservatism is good and true, that liberals have to be held to higher standards, and that conflict is to be prized above all else.  And there is something to be said about not-completely-scripted events in which the candidates appear together and are forced to interact.

This is not the best way to run a democracy that is on life support, but the many shortcomings of the non-debate format do not make things any worse, and it might every now and then make them marginally better.  This is admittedly faint praise, but even writing these grudgingly nonnegative comments was an effort.