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What the Press Gets Wrong About Primary Debates

They aren't meant to gin up scathing attacks and YouTube moments. They're supposed to give voters a chance to get comfortable with the candidates.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The morning following a Democratic debate is like waking up after a loud cocktail party and trying to piece together the discordant images from a long night.

You recall Bernie Sanders, true to form, saying, with literally his four opening words, “Let me be blunt.” There is the weird memory of a tieless Andrew Yang morphing into a 1950s game show host as he promised to award $1,000 a month to whichever ten voters submit the most heart-rending essays on why they need the money. There was the moment when a laughing Kamala Harris likened Donald Trump to the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. (“You know, when you pull back the curtain, he’s a really small dude.”) And, of course, who can forget when Joe Biden said “record player” instead of that poetic phrase “MP3 download”?

Was that Julian Castro who spilled a drink on Biden? No, wait, it wasn’t a drink. Castro embarrassed himself by attacking Biden for supposedly not remembering what he said on health care two minutes earlier, when, in truth, the former vice president had been mostly consistent.

The heavy-handed implication that the 76-year-old Biden is facing cognitive decline may prove to be Castro’s most viral moment from this race. When, barring a miracle, he eventually withdraws, his failed takedown of Biden will probably be in the opening paragraphs of his political obituaries.

The Castro crack-up illustrates a larger point about debates that goes beyond the fate of Barack Obama’s former housing secretary. In a multi-candidate field, the contenders who launch personal attacks don’t just run the risk of appearing shrill; they’re often the least likely to benefit when their blows land.

If you believed the pre-debate hoopla, Houston was supposed to transform the Democratic contest by (stop the presses) putting the ten leading candidates on the same stage for the first time. Finally, we would watch the sparks fly as, say, Elizabeth Warren battled Biden for Democratic supremacy, as ABC and Univision’s ratings set records for the year.

Moderator George Stephanopoulos tried to set up just this kind of confrontation with an opening question about whether to embrace Medicare for All (as Sanders and Warren have suggested) or to expand Obamacare (the Biden approach). While there were a few minor dustups among the leading candidates, Warren set the tone of the encounter when, in some of the debate’s first moments, she went out of her way to say, “We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America and committed this country to health care for every human being.”

More than four months before the Iowa caucuses, too many reporters and political junkies misunderstand the purpose of these early debates. The goal is not to tote up the winners based on their ability to gin up scathing attacks and YouTube moments. At this stage in the race, the point is to allow Democratic primary voters to grow comfortable with their favored candidates as they watch the contenders spar repeatedly over the course of the fall.

Amy Klobuchar, in interviews in New Hampshire last weekend, touched on something important about debates: “You know, people keep saying you have to have this viral moment. And I point out that’s what they are. Those are just moments and they help people with fundraising for one day.” A ten-candidate primary debate will never produce canonical moments of the sort that, say, Ronald Reagan had in 1984, when he deflected concerns about his age in a general-election debate against Walter Mondale by cracking, “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

There were, of course, some memorable lines in Houston last night, particularly during the opening health-care discussion, which all candidates had anticipated would emerge as a major debate topic.

Challenging Sanders’s claim that employers would raise wages if they did not have to pay for health insurance, Biden said (in what was almost certainly a rehearsed bit), “For a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.” Klobuchar got to personalize a line that she has been using on the campaign trail about Medicare for All: “While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. And on page eight ... it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it.”

What gets lost in all these debates is the pesky question of how a Democratic president could possibly enact even a fraction of the far-reaching plans that he or she is advocating. In the best possible case, a Democratic president would be inaugurated in 2021 with maybe a one-vote margin in the currently 53-47 Republican Senate.

Both Warren and Cory Booker talked about ending the filibuster in order to pass major gun legislation. And Sanders, who would keep the filibuster if elected, spoke about using the arcane congressional process of budget reconciliation to pass legislation with just a 51-vote majority.

But the truth is—as inconvenient as it may be for Democratic dreamers—that a massive transformation of health care, let alone something akin to Warren’s $2.75 trillion wealth tax, would require more than a flimsy one-vote majority to clear the Senate. In fact, the mere attempt to force something so transformational through Congress, particularly if the next president has only a narrow mandate to pass such sweeping reforms, could give Republicans a congressional sweep in 2022. That’s the last thing that the Democrats, or the nation, need.

Last night, voters witnessed a robust debate about the intricacies of policy arguments on topics like health care, as the Democratic Party splits between those who want to scrap Obamacare and those who want to expand it. But my hunch is that personal attributes and personal stories will matter far more to Democratic primary voters than the fine print in position papers.

Many reporters, eager for fresh material, may have groaned inwardly when Stephanopoulos turned the final debate question into personal discussions of resilience in the lives of the candidates. But for voters, his chosen topic may have been the most relevant and compelling portion of the entire debate.

Biden, who has suffered enough personal tragedies to compete with Job, spoke movingly about how he lost his “faith for a while” after his wife and infant daughter died in a car crash soon after he was elected to the Senate. Pete Buttigieg told a prime-time TV audience about coming out as gay because he could not face “not knowing what it was like to be in love any longer.” And Warren, lifting a fragment almost word-for-word from her stump speech, described losing a teaching post because she was pregnant: “I’m at home. I got a baby. I can’t have a job. What am I going to do? Here’s resilience. I said, ‘I’ll go to law school.’”

The Houston debate offered the voters far more light than heat. But it probably helped Democratic voters clarify their choices. That alone was a public service no matter what happens in the post-debate polls.