After two rounds of two-night Democratic primary debates, one thing should be abundantly clear — the party needs to walk away from its loveless marriage to MSNBC and CNN and put on its own shows.
When you think about it, it's actually pretty crazy that the party entrusts its signature talent showcase to self-interested cable networks that thrive on dramatic confrontations. Or that it leaves the agenda up to moderators who seem bent on framing their questions with conservative assumptions, trying to get the candidates to knife each other on stage while totally ignoring critical issues like voting rights.
You don't have to get too deep into any of this week's transcripts to see how this is a problem. In the very first post-opening remarks exchange on Tuesday, CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked Sen. Bernie Sanders a health-care question, which he framed with this: "You support Medicare-for-all, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans, in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone." When he turned to Elizabeth Warren, Tapper asked, "Are you also, quote, 'with Bernie' on Medicare-for-all when it comes to raising taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for it?"
This language — of the government "taking away" health insurance and inflicting massive tax raises on the middle class, is precisely how President Trump and his Republican allies are going to frame the issue. And while it's good to be prepared for the tough questions to come in the general election, there's no need to spend the next year having Democratic ideas get beaten up by moderators who think their job is to conduct an inquisition. Because that's exactly what these first two debates have often felt like. It has not been enjoyable.
Wednesday night's fixation on getting Kamala Harris and Joe Biden to go after each other in the nastiest way possible typifies the nightmare that the cable behemoths are foisting on us. The network's fight club framework left no room for a discussion, for example, of H.R. 1, the Democrats' sweeping political reform bill, or gerrymandering. It was up to Cory Booker to squeeze in a moment on voter suppression, in response to another stupid question about who is the best person to beat Donald Trump. It was up to Kirsten Gillibrand to bring up issues of women's work, again in the context of an unrelated prompt.
The one time the discussion turned to "free college," it was only in the context of whether these benefits should be extended to undocumented immigrants — once again the Republicans' dream framing. There was no real discussion of parental leave or early childhood education. Nothing on Iran. Nothing on North Korea. Nothing on the galloping theocratic movement to make abortion illegal. At this point, the absence of these issues — signature Democratic priorities — from the debates is shameful. And the fault falls squarely on the shoulders of the networks.
In a bygone age, entrusting primary debates to TV news networks made a lot of sense. As recently as the turn of this century, CNN and the big three over-the-air networks enjoyed relatively broad trust with the public. While hardcore conservatives have been sniping about liberal media bias for decades, it was really the rise of Fox News which destroyed whatever consensus existed about the value of non-partisan journalism. President Trump has ginned up a murderous hatred of CNN and many other journalists, Democrats won't debate in front of Fox moderators, and Republicans won't touch MSNBC. And it feels like the MSNBC and CNN moderators have internalized the hatred directed at them by the right, and are processing it by trying to appear as combative as possible with everyone in the Democratic field. The whole model is completely broken.
In theory, the Fake News Left Wing Conspiracy networks CNN and MSNBC, which have taken nonstop fire from the president and his apologists for three years, might seem like friendly territory. The problem is that this is not at all how the networks or the moderators see themselves. Tapper and Dana Bash and Chuck Todd all want to burnish their national reputations by asking "tough" questions, which in this context means either hitting the candidates with right-wing narratives and seeing how well they respond, or setting two contenders up for a yelling match.
And that's fine — journalists should ask bracing questions. It's why every once in a while people tweet out clips of some BBC journalist sticking it to a politician in a way that would be shocking stateside. There's nothing wrong with a sharp exchange. If Kamala Harris were to sit down one-on-one with Rachel Maddow, she should absolutely expect an interrogation. The real question, one that seems not to have occurred to anyone in Democratic leadership, is whether they want their candidates grilled by these journalists for months and months when there is another way forward, and when this is really the best opportunity the party will ever have to run a months-long, free advertisement for the Democratic Party.
What should Democrats do? For one, the Democratic National Committee could stage its own debates, on college campuses, worker centers and union halls around the country, and invite the networks to broadcast them. If the big cable stations don't want to play ball, the Democrats can start their own streaming service, or throw the debates up on Facebook. They don't need million-dollar stages and handsomely remunerated cable anchors and hyperbolic countdown clocks, all needless frills that reinforce the alienation of ordinary people from this critical process. Instead, they could hand the questioning to other prominent Democrats, or even to recognized experts in their fields.
A health-care debate could be moderated by experts from the Kaiser Family Foundation. A foreign policy conversation could be hosted by the new anti-war think tank The Quincy Institute. A debate about child care policy could be put on by the National Partnership for Women and Families. And the climate debate that so many have asked for could actually happen. The networks could still have their post-debate panels full of well-known talking heads.
Other events could be moderated by leading thinkers from left-leaning pressure groups like Indivisible and Our Revolution, or by public-facing scholars well-versed in the issues at hand. That doesn't mean that the debates would be some kind of ideological monoculture — there are vast policy and stylistic issues on the left. But they would be litigated by progressives, for progressives. The point would be to highlight and promote and argue about and refine Democratic ideas, not to run them down.
Think about it — instead of giving such tremendous narrative power to CNN anchors (again: I mean no disrespect to CNN anchors! They have their uses! I'm sure they work very hard!), the Democratic debates could become a showcase for the broad and rich universe of progressive institutions and ideas. There would still be moderates and progressives arguing about health care and foreign policy up on stage. There would be no shortage of meme-able moments and comments that light Twitter on fire. But the party could make sure that its debate season is curated by people who have the best interests of Democrats and progressives at heart, rather than the bottom lines of underwriters, advertisers and cable executives.
Go ahead. Debate me.