Democrats: It's Trump's world, and we're just living in it

Democrats: It's Trump's world, and we're just living in it
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It’s Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Romney: 'Unthinkable and unacceptable' to not commit to peaceful transition of power Two Louisville police officers shot amid Breonna Taylor grand jury protests MORE’s world and we’re just living in it.

That’s the clear message going into the Democrats’ presidential candidate debate in South Carolina on Tuesday, after the scalding mess on display at the mixed martial arts event in Las Vegas last week.

The Democratic death match was a replica of the Trump-dominated GOP debates four years ago, with competing candidates trying to outdo each other in bombast, distraction, and burn-it-down rhetoric.

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And there’s more: Just as in 2016, the panel of moderators this time around have increasingly abandoned their role and are watching helplessly while their questions are used as mere props with which to launch a fresh round of off-topic attacks.

Almost exactly four years ago, on Feb. 24, 2016, the GOP held a primary debate in Houston, at a point in that campaign closely resembling where the Democrats stand now. Trump was on the upswing with his take-no-prisoners style; his onstage competitors decided it was time to join in or lose out.

Not surprisingly, then, the discussion points raised that night included the following set of urgent policy topics:

Through it all, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer failed to exert control. The reviews were scathing.

The debate tone was widely condemned back then, only to be openly cloned in Las Vegas last week. Democrats went full-force in the once-denounced Trump style: ad hominem offensives that often aim at personal weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

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Among the important issues debated in Las Vegas by former New York City mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergDemocratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Bloomberg pays fines for 32,000 felons in Florida so they can vote Top Democratic super PAC launches Florida ad blitz after Bloomberg donation MORE, Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOutrage erupts over Breonna Taylor grand jury ruling Dimon: Wealth tax 'almost impossible to do' Grand jury charges no officers in Breonna Taylor death MORE (I-Vt.), Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDimon: Wealth tax 'almost impossible to do' CNN's Don Lemon: 'Blow up the entire system' remark taken out of context Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court MORE (D-Mass.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSocial media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day Battle lines drawn on precedent in Supreme Court fight Sunday shows - Ruth Bader Ginsburg's death dominates MORE (D-Minn.), former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November Buttigieg stands in as Pence for Harris's debate practice Hillicon Valley: FBI, DHS warn that foreign hackers will likely spread disinformation around election results | Social media platforms put muscle into National Voter Registration Day | Trump to meet with Republican state officials on tech liability shield MORE and former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden on Trump's refusal to commit to peaceful transfer of power: 'What country are we in?' Democratic groups using Bloomberg money to launch M in Spanish language ads in Florida Harris faces pivotal moment with Supreme Court battle MORE:

  • Owning more than one house is bad (Bloomberg to Sanders, Sanders back to Bloomberg, and Buttigieg to everyone)
  • Money is the root of all evil (Everyone to Bloomberg, Bloomberg to Sanders, Warren to Buttigieg)
  • Forgetting names is very bad (Buttigieg to Klobuchar)
  • Criticizing people for forgetting names makes them feel dumb (Klobuchar to Buttigieg)
  • Post-it notes are bad (Warren to Klobuchar)
  • PowerPoints are bad, too (Warren to Buttigieg)

As the lights came down on this cage match, it was obvious that the president had succeeded over time in shifting the political rules of engagement to his side of the field: Each Democrat was playing his game. The problem for the general election: No one plays Trump’s game better than the man who invented it.

The moderators came off no better. They’ve had four years to watch Trump and study those tactics. Yet, they did little to control an evening brimming with the same brew. Sometimes it felt as if it would have been just as effective to place an Alexa device on a table and have it call out questions.

South Carolina’s debate now presents a chance for all of those involved to redeem themselves, first and foremost the panel of journalists. It is clearly up to them to be the adults in the room.

In Trump’s world — the one we all live in — adults-in-the-room don’t fare very well. But in South Carolina, someone will need to try.

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.