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In the First Debates, the Candidates Didn’t Get Enough Time to Answer. Last Night, They Got Too Much.

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David J. Phillip/AP Photo

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden during the Democratic presidential debate at Texas Southern University in Houston, September 12, 2019.


Until last night, the main problem with the Democratic presidential debates was that they were too short. The candidates were asked to respond to snap questions, and if they strayed over their allotted 45 or 30 seconds, the moderators cut them off.

During last night’s debate, there were times—lots of them—when I yearned for moderators who’d browbeat them into silence. Past the 90-second mark, some of the responses amounted to recycling the first 20 seconds, or in Joe Biden’s case, occasional free association (though less than in the earlier debates). Whether that was because our soundbite age has trained even the ablest debaters to make their point in 60 seconds and anything longer doesn’t even rise to the level of commentary, or because the candidates were treading well-worn fields—or both—I’m not sure. All I know is that, at times, I had the sensation that my insomnia had been cured.

To be sure, some of the candidates handled the extra time well, because they had something both coherent and, at least for the debate stage, new to say. Beto O’Rourke’s assault on assault weapons certainly cleared that bar; Beto had a good night. Bernie Sanders’s attack on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro as a tyrant, while admirably succinct, was both overdue and welcome, since both for his own cause and that of democratic socialism, he needed to draw a clear line between the democratic and the autocratic versions of the S word. It was good to see him shake free of the revolutionary romanticism to which too many of my fellow leftists fall prey.

I’m not sure of the wisdom of beginning every debate with a half-hour segment on health insurance. As with some medications, the potency of these discussions diminishes with repetition. I rather liked Elizabeth Warren’s statement that she’s never met anyone who said they loved their health insurance—at her best, Warren has the ability to come out with almost aphoristic summations of problems and solutions. (Whether that offsets what I still see as the most problematic aspect of her presentations—that her school-teacher manner likely doesn’t go down very well among working-class men—remains to be seen.) I also wish that both Warren and Sanders would place greater stress than they have on one argument that at times both have made: that the free choice of health care providers that Medicare for All allows is more in tune with the ideal of consumer choice than the free choice of insurers that their critics offer.

That said, I’m beginning to think the inaugural half-hours spent on the health care debate now draw blood from a stone. The best way to avoid the curse of déjà vu would be for the moderators to turn the discussion to topics they’ve thus far scanted. What about Wall Street? What companies should be broken up? How about Warren’s idea of dividing corporate boards between representatives of workers as well as representatives of shareholders? And what about axing the filibuster? Last night, Sanders opposed that idea, substituting for it something about passing everything through the magic of budget reconciliation or maybe a parliamentarian just predisposed to passing bills with 51 votes—it wasn’t really clear what his alternative was. But changing Senate procedure is really key to turning any of the programs that the candidates favor into law. A longer discussion of how to go about that could be instructive.

In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s just no way a debate with ten participants really reveals very much beyond the candidates’ basic orientation and their choice of shtick. These are definitely things that voters need to know, but repetition doesn’t necessarily make the heart grow fonder.

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