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How CNN Dumbed Down the Democratic Debate

Francis Barry writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was director of public affairs and chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. He is the author of “The Scandal of Reform: The Grand Failures of New York City’s Political Crusaders and the Death of Nonpartisanship.”
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Watching the Democratic debate was an exercise in frustration, but not with the candidates. 

Under the guise of raising “concerns that voters have” about the candidates, CNN’s Anderson Cooper opened the debate by repeating every well-worn line of attack against them.

To Clinton: “Will you say anything to get elected?” When Cooper wasn’t satisfied with the answer, he repeated the charge, again in the form of a question: “Do you change your political identity based on who you’re talking to?”

When he still didn’t like the answer, he tried to force a label upon her: “Just for the record, are you a progressive or are you a moderate?” So much for debates allowing voters to see beyond simplistic and often misleading one-word labels. 

Turning to Sanders, Anderson channeled the RNC: “The Republican attack ad against you in a general election writes itself. You supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union. And just this weekend, you said you’re not a capitalist. Doesn’t that ad write itself?” 

Many voters tune into debates because they are tired of 30-second attack ads.

Cooper then picked out the most obvious political weaknesses in Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, and after attempting to bloody each, he said he’d move on to “some of the most pressing issues facing the country.” What a relief. But rather than refereeing a debate, Cooper and his CNN colleagues posed most questions in the form of a jab -- and an invitation for others to pile on. 

To Clinton: Is Bernie Sanders tough enough on guns? O’Malley: Is Clinton too quick to use force? Webb: Should a conscientious objector like Sanders serve as commander-in-chief? And so it continued.

When Anna from Tempe asked, “What will you do to address climate change?”, CNN’s Don Lemon added: “Governor O’Malley, please tell Anna how you would protect the environment better than all the other candidates on that stage.” 

Anna’s question should have stood on its own, and all the candidates should have had the chance to answer it. Instead, after O’Malley responded, Cooper asked Webb for the second time if he was “out of step” with the party, given his support for fossil fuels. And he asked Sanders, “Are you tougher on climate change than Senator Clinton?”

Instead of allowing such disagreements to arise naturally, CNN forced them down the candidates’ -- and viewers' -- throats. This was moderator-as-matador, with the performance aided by rules designed to encourage the bulls to charge. Any time someone mentioned a rival, that candidate got a chance to respond. That would be a fair rule if the moderators tried to maintain equal time, but they didn’t. During the discussion of income inequality, Webb could be heard saying off camera: “Bernie, say my name so I can get into this.” It was hard not to feel for him. 

CNN wanted a bullfight. But for the most part, the candidates were more interested in discussing their own ideas than trashing their rivals, and rightly so. This was the first debate of the campaign, the first chance for the candidates to explain their platforms to a national audience. Yet the moderators had little patience for that, and when they weren’t inviting criticism, they were leveling it themselves. 

To Sanders, Cooper delivered a political punch with a commercial plug: “Why did it take 18 inspector general reports -- and a CNN investigation, and others --- before you and your colleagues took action” on problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs? 

To Clinton, he asked: “In all candor, you and your husband are part of the 1 percent. How can you credibly represent the views of the middle class?” Doubling down: “Why should Democrats embrace an insider like yourself?” 

That’s not to say there were no good questions.

Each candidate was asked, “What is the greatest national security threat to the country?” (Cooper urged them to answer that one “very quickly.”) And Carrie from Manassas, Virginia, asked: “President Obama has had a difficult time getting Republicans to compromise on just about every agenda. How will you approach this going forward, and will it be any different?” Great question. Unfortunately, only Sanders was asked to answer it.

The debate covered some important issues, and the candidates mostly acquitted themselves well, exhibiting a basic decorum that the moderators lacked. But it would have been far more informative had the conflict had been less contrived.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Barry at fbarry5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net