The Slatest

The Best Part of the Debate Was When MSNBC Asked Simple Questions About Regular-People Problems

Harris speaks as three other candidates are pictured looking on. The backs of the four debate moderators are seen in the foreground.
California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during Wednesday’s presidential debate in Atlanta. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Much of MSNBC’s Democratic primary debate was boring and did little to distinguish the candidates from one other. One major reason for that was that the four moderators so frequently handed them awkward meta-questions and gotchas—prompts to discuss campaign strategy, puff up the intangible powers of their own leadership abilities, or come down on one side of an arcane but ostensibly tricky binary. Questions like:

• How can Democratic senators convince their Republican colleagues to remove Trump from office if he’s impeached?

• What would you do as president to “bring the country together”?

• What would you do as president to get Republicans to stop fighting Democrats?

• Should Trump’s impeachment be a central part of a Democratic presidential campaign?

• Does the average voter want to “tear down the system”?

• Would you tweet as president?

• Should Democrats “discourage” crowds from chanting that Donald Trump should be “locked up”?

• “If you were commander in chief,” would you make concessions to Kim Jong-un?

• You say that Trump’s border wall is bad, but would you “ask taxpayers” to pay to take sections of it down?

• Should anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards be allowed to be part of the Democratic Party?

These questions, generally speaking, embodied cable TV’s bifurcated worldview, in which politics exists either as a venue for savvy, value-neutral choices between “tacking to the center” and “throwing red meat to the base,” or as a stage for the kind of mystical, unifying figure who would make a grave, inspirational speech in the Oval Office in a movie about the Earth getting hit by an asteroid.

Neither part of that worldview generally produces questions that have good answers. On the cynical, transactional side, candidates would be stupid to talk openly about their would-be voters as commodifiable blocs, which is what discussions of campaign strategy require, and they have little incentive to discuss the kinds of hard trade-offs that gotcha questions postulate, because there are few voters who care enough about those specific issues to punish them for giving vague nonanswers. On the mythic, Great Leader side, absent that oncoming asteroid, it is not really possible for anyone to reasonably offer a plan about how they will “bring the country together.”

For a few minutes at the end of the first hour, however, the moderators asked a different kind of question—not about how the candidates would scheme their way to 270 electoral votes or how they’d perform the majesty of office, but simply what they would do to solve practical problems, like:

• What would you do to ease the financial burden of child care?

• What would you do to address the increasing unaffordability of housing, especially in metro areas?

These questions got good answers. Here’s Kamala Harris on her proposal to require employers to offer six months of paid family leave:

It is no longer the case in America that people have children in their 20s. People are having children in their 30s, often in their 40s, which means these families and parents are often [raising] young children and taking care of their parents, which requires a lot of work, from traveling back and forth to a hospital, to daycare—to all of the activities that are required, much less the health care needs that are required. And what we are seeing in America today is the burden principally falls on women to do that work. And many women are having to make a very difficult choice—whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they’re going to give up a paycheck which is part of what that family relies on. So six months paid family leave is meant to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today.

Here’s Tom Steyer on housing:

When I look at inequality in the United States of America, you have to start with housing. Where you put your head at night determines so many things about your life. It determines where you kids go to school. It determines the air you breathe, where you shop, how long it takes you to get to work. What we’ve seen in California is, as a result of policy, we have millions too few housing units. And that affects everybody in California. It starts with a homeless crisis that goes all through the state. But it also includes skyrocketing rents, affecting every single working person in the state of California. … We need to apply resources here to make sure that we build literally millions of new units. But the other thing that’s going to be true about building these units is we’re going to have to build them in a way that’s sustainable—that in fact how we build units, where people live, has a dramatic impact on climate and on sustainability. So we are going to have to direct dollars. We’re going to have to change policy and make sure that the localities and municipalities who have worked very hard to make sure that there are no new housing units built in their towns, that they have to change that. And we’re going to have to force it, and then we’re going to have to direct federal dollars to make sure those units are affordable so that working people can live in places and not be spending 50% of their income on rent.

Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker also gave useful answers about housing, with Warren bringing up the way that mortgage redlining has contributed to the racial wealth gap and Booker advocating to change the tax code so that renters get some of the same sorts of breaks that homeowners get through the mortgage interest deduction.

These questions engaged the candidates, because they were excited to talk directly about what they are offering to voters. And they were useful to viewers, because they demonstrated how voting one way or the other could practically affect their lives and/or communities.

What if the moderators made the whole debate about the things a presidential candidate would do to help voters if they were elected president?