Thursday night’s Democratic debate on ABC was the best debate of this still-young—sigh!—presidential primary season. Why was it more helpful than its predecessors? In part because, unlike in the previous debates, the top 10 candidates were all on the same stage at once, not spread out across two nights alongside John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and the rest of the soon-to-be also-rans. But mostly the debate was refreshing because of the intelligent ways in which ABC’s four moderators structured their questions and parceled out time.
The quadriad of George Stephanopoulos, Linsey Davis, David Muir, and Jorge Ramos offered almost three hours of largely sharp and specific questions tied to current events and candidates’ previous statements and life experiences. They kept the discussion moving, letting the candidates respond to their competitors’ statements when necessary but not allowing the evening to be bogged down by endless interruptions and rebuttals. They asked hard questions about the candidates’ records while mostly refraining from framing those questions around “electability.” They turned the night into that elusive beast we often invoke but rarely see: a debate about issues.
Funny enough, the debate didn’t start off that way. The first question of the night, from Stephanopoulos to former Vice President Joe Biden, broached the topic of health care by essentially characterizing “Medicare for All” as some pie-in-the-sky pinko idea that no savvy politician could ever support. “Both Sens. Warren and Sanders want to replace Obamacare with Medicare for All; you want to build on Obamacare, not scrap it,” Stephanopoulos said. “Are Sens. Warren and Sanders pushing too far beyond where Democrats want to go and where the country needs to go?” The question seemed designed to frame the ensuing discussion in a way that established a more centrist position on health care as the sensible, reasonable one while immediately forcing proponents of Medicare for All into a defensive stance. This inauspicious start reminded me of some of the earlier debates this year, in which the moderators seemed intent on forcing candidates to preemptively defend themselves against charges of unelectability, as levied by theoretical undecideds who were never going to vote for them anyway. This interrogative strategy rarely elicits interesting or relevant answers, and the rest of the health care segment suffered for having this question as its catalyst.
But that turned out to be the low point of the evening. From there, Davis, Muir, and Ramos raised the bar with successive rounds of pointed, detailed questions on racism, guns, and immigration, respectively. (After the midpoint break, Stephanopoulos rebounded with a wonky, but accessibly substantive, discussion of trade and tariffs.) All three of them came prepared with questions indicating a deep familiarity with the candidates’ respective positions and public statements. The result was that the candidates ended up substantively addressing their policies and proposals while avoiding much of the boilerplate rhetoric that tends to characterize less competently moderated debates. Consider the striking, memorable moment when Rep. Beto O’Rourke advocated for the federal confiscation of “weapon[s] of war” such as the AR-15 or the AK-47. At most of these events, candidates seem bound up in catchphrases and sweat to avoid saying anything that might end up in an attack ad. In some of the earlier debates in this cycle, the moderators seemed fixated on asking the candidates to respond to what their competitors had said about their policies, rather than what those policies actually said. There was very little he-said, she-said nonsense on Thursday night.
Davis and Ramos were particularly sharp. Ramos brought a sense of moral gravity and deep subject-matter knowledge to his questions about climate change and immigration. His first question, to Biden, was admirably specific. “Vice President Biden, as a presidential candidate, in 2008, you supported the border wall, saying, ‘Unlike most Democrats, I voted for 700 miles of fence.’ This is what you said,” Ramos began. “Then you served as vice president in an administration that deported 3 million people, the most ever in U.S. history. Did you do anything to prevent those deportations?… Are you prepared to say tonight that you and President Obama made a mistake about deportations?” When Biden tried to avoid fielding Ramos’ question, Ramos actually called him out for not answering and then asked the question again. Biden’s ultimate answer wasn’t great: “The president did the best thing that was able to be done at the time.” “How about you?” Ramos asked. Biden: “I’m the vice president of the United States.” But that, in itself, was telling. Good job, Jorge Ramos!
Davis kept things specific, too. She directly asked Sen. Kamala Harris to address the contradictions between her current progressive rhetoric on criminal justice reform and her contrasting record as a prosecutor in California. “When you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?” Davis asked Harris, cutting right to the point. “I’m glad you asked me this question,” Harris said. She clearly wasn’t, and neither was Sen. Amy Klobuchar when Davis asked her a similarly pointed question about her tenure as a prosecutor in Minnesota. Good! This is one of the major reasons to have debates in the first place: so that journalists can respectfully but firmly query candidates on the discrepancies, flaws, and contradictions in their records that they would prefer not to address. The ABC team seemed to understand this better than any of their predecessors.
The debate was not a perfect one—it was really long, and the final round of questions struck me as meandering and irrelevant—but it was the best one we’ve had thus far, by far. More like this, please.