After the first night of CNN’s bipartite Democratic debate, the network’s analyst John King discussed the import of the event for the primary candidates’ “survival,” but interrupted himself midthought: “I don’t want to make this into reality TV.”
Oh, go ahead. You might as well call the thing what it is.
That “Survivor” state of things — a desperate contest among a crowded field to avoid elimination — was not wholly of CNN’s making. It was created in part by the party’s decision to set the bar for the early debates at ankle height, and by the ability of a couple dozen Democrats to imagine themselves in the Oval Office, or at least imagine themselves imagining it.
And now, they were facing a mass group culling, since the tighter rules for the September debates will likely leave half or more of them out. Inevitably, people would act out to stand out.
That’s reality TV, but it’s also the hard reality of the race.
That said, CNN also did plenty to goose the drama, starting with its live Powerball drawing to determine the two nights’ lineup. Each night of the debate began with a hyperdramatic clip reel suited to an “Amazing Race” finale, giving candidates thumbnail descriptions and setting up the night’s story arcs. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were “longtime friends fighting for the same cause — and the same voters!” Kamala Harris was “not backing down after clashing with Biden over race!”
Its contestants sorted into two tribes, CNN then tried to strike sparks off the debaters, using questions based on their past criticisms of one another to goad them into face-offs.
That does not necessarily mean a shallow discussion; indeed, this kind of nudging can be the job of a good debate moderator. Both nights of debate opened with long and substantive arguments about health care, a top issue for Democratic voters and one on which the party’s factions have legitimate differences.
But since the format split the show’s “stars” over two nights, CNN did what reality producers do, which was to “cast” the available talent into roles that served a promising story line, then create the conditions for drama — generally, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the contestants looking for screen time.
One arc of the primary so far has been the divide between the party’s moderates and its left. Tuesday, the left was generously represented, with Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.
But with the moderate front-runner, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., offstage, former Representative John Delaney, heretofore the trivia question of the 2020 race, became a co-star for one episode, enlisted to badger and get battered by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren. He grinned gamely through it all; if nothing else, he was getting the sort of meaty edit a reality contestant gets just before being eliminated in an early round.
On Wednesday, CNN’s fight-night intro highlighted the “critical rematch!” between Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden. But this time, the candidates needed less direction from the moderators to clash.
Representative Tulsi Gabbard attacked Ms. Harris. Nearly everyone attacked Mr. Biden. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City attacked nearly everyone else — including the moderators — and in turn was attacked by protesters angry over his handling of police violence. He was like a one-man band of conflict, a debate unto himself.
Of course there was discord on the stage. There’s disagreement within the party. That’s politics. But it was compounded by the anxiety over making the next debate, and multiplied by CNN’s smackdown aesthetic. You fight or you die — the price of attention is combat. The candidates who didn’t lash out, like Senator Amy Klobuchar, tended to fade away.
The candidates, however, weren’t the only ones under pressure. The moderators, Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper, had a lot of debaters to attend to in limited time (further limited by CNN’s spending the first chunk of the debates on introductions and the national anthem). They enforced the time limits strictly, especially on Tuesday, clipping many answers with a knuckle-rapping “Thank you!” as the candidates were building to a finish.
To be fair, moderators get criticized when they let the candidates stampede over them and blow past the time limits. It’s tough to land between free-for-all and free-for-none, but that’s where the sweet spot is: not letting the rules get in the way of the responses that the audience is watching for. It is, maybe, less like policing and more like running the Oscars — knowing when to play someone off and knowing when you’re witnessing a moment that you need to let run.
The moments still came, like Mr. Sanders cutting off Representative Tim Ryan’s doubts about his Medicare for All proposal with, “I wrote the damn bill!” Marianne Williamson continued to make her oddly transfixing case for the election as a psychic-spiritual crucible.
But one of the most pointed applause lines came from the businessman Andrew Yang — an attack not on his opponents or even on the moderators but on the premise of high-octane, high-gloss televised debating.
“Instead of talking about automation and our future,” he said, “we’re up here with makeup on our faces and our rehearsed attack lines playing roles in this reality-TV show. It’s one reason why we elected a reality-TV star as our president.”
His speech was, dare I say it, a reliably effective reality-TV strategy: reminding the audience that they’re watching a performance, thus implying that, even as you participate in the same artifice, you are the one keeping it most real. And he got some of the most enthusiastic cheers of the night for it. Sometimes hating the game can be as strategic as hating the players.
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