The Debates: Round Two

The Debates: Round Two


Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

The Democratic candidates’ 2020 presidential debate round two was better than round one. The format was managed better by the moderators and questioning probed deeper. Unfortunately, this contest confirmed some of the problems that were already apparent in these debate formats. Sadly, they are unlikely to be changed in this election cycle, but they need to be fixed.

One of the ideas behind creating this series of debates is to permit the entire nation to have the opportunity to watch the candidates, months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary voters actually cast any ballots. These debates also permit candidates to gain free national prime time exposure to assist them in fund-raising and polling. The flip side of this rationale, as a result of Supreme Court decisions, is that anyone whose ego tells them that they actually could be elected, can launch a campaign with relatively minimal effort and end up in the presidential race. All they need is money.

In the name of fairness, the party created a format which—much like the Republican Party did four years ago—is chaotic and overwhelming. These debates are long, and only a few of the candidates even receive a total of twenty minutes over a two-hour period. Even the rebuttal and counter-rebuttal moments–which are very effective–are generally not substantive.

This current format is also structured to encourage the candidates to score points against one another and not to enlighten the voters. It gets tough, angry, and not constructive. Challenging candidates by pulling details from someone’s previous statements and records—Biden or Harris or Booker for example—demands more than a 30-60 second reply after being blindsided.

In the name of fairness, moderators do seek to give all participants opportunities to speak to almost all issues. This arrangement, by definition, limits the issues. As a result, round two had virtually no discussion of foreign policy or national security policy. There was no real conversation about the Mueller Report, Russian election interference, or impeachment.


Report Card

As for the debates themselves, this appears to be the results.

Among the front-runners Harris may have proven that she is not ready for prime time. She was brash and immature. Booker was on the rise but needs to stay more focused. Biden did much better than the first time but was not as precise as he should be; details, then platitudes, then smiles. Buttigieg straddled all sides well. He was contained, and smart which helped his standing. Warren was stronger than Sanders and should begin to pull ahead on the progressive side.  The moderate voices scored well on both nights— Bennet, Bullock, Delaney, Gabbard, Klobuchar, and Ryan—but to what end.


Looking Ahead

* The anti-Trump theme needs to be intensified, but with details. Only on immigration did they do the job.

* The Obama years must not be trashed in order to incriminate Biden. They need the Obama record and they need the former President.

* Biden cannot let his 50-year record be dissected. He made mistakes and he has changed position. Only boring people are afraid to change. He needs to dish it back to counter his critics.

* Warren needs to move to a more realistic progressive posture, or she and the D’s will go down. Her detailed programs will not move the voters who are already questioning her themes. She will not win on this track.

It is all a bit exhausting, even more so when one considers that there are ten more debates scheduled!

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