Who will be the winner of the next Democratic debate? It's none of the candidates

Who will be the winner of the next Democratic debate? It's none of the candidates
© Getty Images

Fool-proof prediction: The victor in the next Democratic presidential debate, set for the end of this month in Detroit, will be the same as the winner of last week’s event in Miami — television.

The losers will be many, led by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which created the format and established the rules. A close second: analysts and commentators from all forms of news media who, like the DNC, slavishly adhered to the maxims of televised entertainment when judging the best and worst in South Florida.

Corralling ten candidates on a stage guarantees the focus won’t be on facts but on what TV delivers best: emotion, sensationalism and conflict. The current formula turns the debates into just another form of reality-show diversion.


The candidates understand this. Variations on the emotion-packed words “this is personal to me” were used about a dozen times over the pair of debates, signaling that feelings and fervor were the currency of each night.  Heat instead of light.

Political pundits declared former HUD secretary Julian CastroJulian CastroSanders campaign manager thanks Castro for 'leadership' on immigration Castro unveils new Iowa ad as he lays off staff in New Hampshire, South Carolina Castro campaign laying off staff in two states: report MORE the winner of  the first evening, simply because he started the fireworks. Castro pushed fellow Texan and former congressman Beto O’Rourke to support decriminalizing illegal immigration.  This showdown sparked raucous cheers from the live audience. Castro, who is polling at around one percent, apparently got every one of his supporters to show up that night.

But does the Democratic Party really stand for decriminalization of illegal border crossings? That’s a worthwhile debate to have but it wasn’t going to happen in this format. Moderators did not press the issue, and the seductive rhythms of television compelled everyone to move on before the audience got bored.

Predictably enough, when Castro was finally questioned about immigration days later, he admitted he was not advocating unlimited border entry. But by then, his “winner” status was set in stone.

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisJuan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete Democrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Women who inspired 'Hidden Figures' film will be honored with congressional gold medals MORE (D-Calif.) did something similar the next night, with her now-famous face-off against former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenImpeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Trump DACA fight hits Supreme Court Juan Williams: Honesty, homophobia and Mayor Pete MORE over forced busing. It clearly was planned in advance and well-delivered — a strong performance because it no doubt came from an honest, sincere place.


Yet, again, it was the performance that won the day, not the politics. Do Democrats, eager to bring white working-class Obama voters back into the fold, really want to revisit forced busing? Is it worth re-examining an issue that exacerbated race relations, shattered the Democratic coalition, undermined public education and damaged big cities? Maybe. But that was not even remotely addressed in a short-attention-span debate that hopped from topic-to-topic.

As with Castro, the passage of a little time has enabled some to reconsider the Harris moment and its policy implications. But this is TV we’re talking about — emotions and passions win out here, just as in a soap opera. So Harris has risen sharply in the polls.

In a different way, the senator — and all the candidates — also are among the losers in these debates, type-cast based on slim first impressions. At a 90-minute town hall this past weekend in Los Angeles, attended by more than 500 voters, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats debate how to defeat Trump: fight or heal Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows by six members MORE (D-Colo.) was asked several times to push for a better way to conduct these debates.

The Democratic challengers should all band together and just refuse to show up at the debates.

That’s not going to happen — but a couple of things can be done to make the Detroit debates marginally better than what came before.

First, kick out the audience. Cheers and interruptions make the whole affair feel like a gladiator battle, skewing perceptions of who’s up and who’s down. Obviously, an otherwise empty room occupied only by candidates isn’t great TV — but that’s the point.

Second, pare down the moderators. In a new poll taken after Miami, nearly half the respondents said debate questioners should be “politically moderate,” and a vast majority gave highest marks to NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt. Working alone or with one other person, Holt might better control the dynamics on stage.

After Detroit, the party has scheduled another four of these events before we even get out of 2019. The candidate pool should shrink pretty soon, and those left will have more time for actual debating. But only if the DNC stops playing by television’s rules — and puts the voters first.

Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.