Debates are competitions, yes. They are spectacles, certainly. And the Democrats have noteworthy differences in their policy positions and their political orientations. But there is a revealing absurdity to CNN’s repeated attempts to reduce a 10-person event to a series of highly targeted duels. The moderators might have asked the candidates about health care, and immigration, and gun safety, and racial inequality, and climate change, but mostly they asked the candidates about one another. The result was cyclical, and cynical: Here were matters of life and death, framed as fodder for manufactured melees.
As the debate wore on, candidates’ individual discussions of policy proposals were often cut short (“Your time is up!” was a common refrain among the moderators); petty squabbles, however, proved less beholden to the rigid rules of the clock. “I want to bring in Governor Hickenlooper,” Tapper said at one point. “I’d like to hear what you say about Senator Warren’s suggestion that those onstage not in favor of Medicare for All lack the will to fight for it.”
It was not a question so much as an invitation—to battle, to squabble, to make the kind of news that is full of sound bites. Maybe even to deliver the sort of electric interpersonal exchange that NBC had hosted last month between Kamala Harris and Joe Biden. CNN had promised the drama, and it spent the evening trying to deliver. It persisted even when the candidates themselves resisted the words of the fight song. “How do you respond to the criticism from Senator Warren that you’re not willing to fight for Medicare for All?” Marianne Williamson was asked, to which she responded, “I don’t know if Senator Warren said that about me specifically.” Amy Klobuchar, when asked, “Who on this stage is making promises just to get elected?,” refused to name names.
No matter. A few moments after the debate’s conclusion, Anderson Cooper, who led CNN’s analysis of the event, asked the network’s chief national correspondent, John King, that classic question of postgame punditry: “Who stood out to you?”
“Well, what stood out to me is I think the most important,” King replied. “The ideological and generational fight in the Democratic Party is alive and well and feisty.”
Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN Worldwide, talks often about his love of sports, and has discussed the ways CNN has incorporated the particular logic of ESPN into its coverage of electoral politics. (Zucker, discussing—defending—CNN’s treatment of the 2016 presidential campaign: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.”)
Today, as it becomes clear how few of the previous election’s lessons have been learned in time for the one that rapidly approaches, there is an aptness to the idea that CNN would, once again, take refuge in the easy symmetries of an athletic competition. And there is a thudding inevitability to the notion that the network would find new ways to insist that politics is, above all, a sporting event: high in drama, low in stakes.