I don’t envy the job of a debate moderator wrangling a stage full of candidates, especially when Twitter, instant replay, and 24-hour cable news breakdowns make every syllable they say the subject of such intense and immediate scrutiny. However: The one thing entirely in their control is the slate of questions they ask, and over and over again, a majority of this election season’s moderators have stumbled as they pursue confrontational moments that they can dissect to death. Tonight’s debate, the last before the first Democratic caucus in Iowa, was yet another frustrating example of this increasingly dire pattern.
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer kicked things off with a series of questions about foreign policy, specifically possible military intervention in the Middle East, most of which made sure to weave in a combative element. He quickly pit former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders against each other for them to perform a repeat of the same fundamental disagreement they’ve been having for months. To Warren, he asked the question in the form of telling her that a new poll CNN conducted with “The Des Moines Register” (its debate co-host) says that a third of Warren supporters said her “ability to lead the military is more of a weakness than a strength of yours. Why are you best prepared to be commander in chief?”
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This questions reflects a formula that debate audiences have become all too used to hearing in recent months: “[x candidate]: your opponent/naysayers have said your [x policy] is dumb. Why are they wrong?” It’s not the kind of question that’s actually meant to inform the electorate. It’s the kind of question that’s meant to inspire antagonistic moments that give cable news channels like CNN some juicier meat to chew in between debates.
Another example of this came soon afterwards when Blitzer asked Senator Amy Klobuchar, “you’ve publicly questioned Mayor Buttigieg’s experience when it comes to being commander in chief. Why is your time as a U.S. Senator more valuable than his time as a U.S. Naval intelligence officer in Afghanistan and as mayor?” (As for Buttigieg, Blitzer continued to lean on his military experience without pushing him much harder at all.) That pointed qualifier seemingly brings up Buttigieg’s military experience versus Klobuchar’s lack thereof as a knock against her assertion that he doesn’t have enough experience overall. In reality, it’s bait for Klobuchar to go after Buttigieg rather than lay out her own history and views on military intervention.
The true combative aim of most debate questions became even clearer when the night turned to the recent CNN report alleging that Sanders told Warren he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president. Sanders insisted that he didn’t “want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want,” before issuing an impassioned denial of ever saying it. CNN moderator Abby Phillip made sure to clarify. “You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?” she asked. “That is correct,” Sanders replied, at which point Phillip turned to Warren and asked: “what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”
Whether or not you believe Sanders, the laugh both he and some segment of the audience let out at this transition is understandable. He issued an unequivocal denial, which Philip either ignored, didn’t buy, or didn’t take into account as she posed the next question to Warren, who quickly answered that question with “I disagreed.” But her next sentence was a crucial one: “Bernie is my friend, and I am not here to try to fight with Bernie.”
This response, after days of breathless buildup, must have been a disappointing one for the CNN control room. This could’ve been a Sanders versus Warren cage match. Instead, it was a civil disagreement between self-professed friends who both gave firm, substantial answers and verbalized their desire not to feed into the belligerent narrative framing the question. This might not have given CNN the salacious content it came for, but it did give the electorate a clearer look into both candidates’ mindsets surrounding this issue. These debates, and the audiences watching them, would be a lot better off overall if more of the questions could follow suit.