Advice for Democrats' next debate: Double down on dignity

Advice for Democrats' next debate: Double down on dignity
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As Democratic candidates get ready for their Detroit debates, they find themselves in the middle of a political and media culture now obsessed with “doubling down” — escalating poor choices instead of switching gears.

First, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report MORE ratcheted up his divide-and-conquer reelection strategy with racist tropes on Twitter and a follow-up game plan designed to make sure the issue would never go away.

At the same time, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) went all-in on its pledge to turn the party’s presidential primary race into just another form of summer reality television.

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It was literally jaw-dropping to watch Trump ramp up racial division over several days. In a very different way, but one particularly glaring given the provocations coming from the White House, it was also stunning to see a special on CNN titled “The Draw.” The program treated Democratic candidates for the presidency like contestants on “The Price Is Right,” ready to compete for a weekend in Waikiki and a brand new Ford Fiesta.

In case you missed it: Like the first event in Miami, the next Democratic debate is set for two nights, July 30-31, featuring ten candidates each evening. The Miami scheme promised to be an exercise in high-end game-show production, and it did not disappoint. The debates had all the things TV loves — screaming contestants, flashing lights, a cheering audience and exasperated hosts trying to wrangle the troops to stay on point until someone went home a winner.

The ratings were strong but — like a hangover the next morning — many people soon began to reconsider what they watched and exhort the DNC to find a better way.

That more-somber approach revealed itself on CNN on July 18. In an effort at “transparency,” the news channel decided to select which Detroit-bound candidates would appear with whom, on what night, right there on live television. Wolf Blitzer explained the rules, a camera showed a series of boxes next to a stack of candidate cards, and Anderson Cooper tossed to a serious-minded discussion group, much like the panel on “American Idol.”

Overhead shots focused on those boxes, as cards were drawn out and placed on a tally board that looked like a “Jeopardy” category listing for “Diminished Democracy.” (“Who is John DelaneyJohn Kevin DelaneyKrystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 2020 Democrats thank Harris for friendship, candidacy after senator drops out Democrats take in lobbying industry cash despite pledges MORE? Seriously, Alex — who is he?”)

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I understand this feels like false equivalency: It is impossible to compare the DNC Lotto Show to the fuel that Trump has thrown on the fire of race and class tension in this country. But it’s now very clear the 2020 election will be extremely consequential, and the DNC must be held accountable for how it has so far conducted the process by which Trump’s challenger will be chosen. 

For years here in Los Angeles, the highest-rated programming on local news has been live car chases. Anchors could be in the middle of an important story — say, homelessness downtown — and be forced to cut away to the station’s chopper, high over Interstate 60, as a Toyota pick-up weaves through rush-hour traffic with police in hot pursuit. The ratings skyrocket, as viewers hang on to see if the ending is dramatic, even violent.  Everyone knows this is wrong, but no one can turn away.

That’s Trump — a master of commanding TV attention. Positive, negative, it makes no difference. As long as you are not turning away, he is controlling the conversation. 

The DNC’s response to this is a system of multiplayer, made-for-television productions that cheapen everyone involved, making them seem smaller-than-life against an outsized opponent. To be clear: This is the DNC’s fault, more than CNN’s. TV will do what TV does, and will use all the tricks at hand to get people to watch. The DNC needs to own this or get a neutral third party involved to oversee the process.

Let’s try one new thing in Detroit. The candidates won’t boycott, that’s clear. They won’t demand less-gimmicky questions from moderators (“Raise your hands if you are tired of raising your hands.”) At the very least, then, they can follow Ronald Reagan’s example. As a candidate, Reagan popularized “The Eleventh Commandment” —  “Thou shall not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” The same should go for Democrats.

That means no more on-camera clashes designed specifically to stand out from the crowd, no interruptions in a desperate attempt to control TV time, no playing to audience cheers in the arena. The candidates should double down on dignity, double down on presenting themselves as qualified individuals worthy of the office.

It’s worth a try.  At the very least, it might put both Donald Trump and the DNC in their places.

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 worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.