Sh*tshow at the O.K. Corral

Folks, the fact of the matter is, this was awful. Yeah, it’s fun to watch Elizabeth Warren beat on Mike Bloomberg, but those fireworks were confined to the first 20-30 minutes. After that, it was a bunch of presidential aspirants channeling their third grade selves, leaning forward, hands raised, hoping to get called on, and then interjecting anyway when they were ignored. The networks set debate rules in conjunction with the national party. The goal is supposedly to win in November, and carry as many senators and representatives along as possible.

This did not help that. Nor did last week’s installment of Survivor. The candidates are desperate. That’s normal for this stage of the campaign. Except for Bloomberg, Tom Steyer, and Bernie Sanders, they’re out of money. Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar are working overtime to justify their existence. None of the those three are a sure shot to hit the 15% needed statewide or in a given congressional district to win delegates. Warren and Klobuchar should get delegates in their respective home states on Super Tuesday, but they’ll need more than that.

It’s their job to do whatever they have to. It’s the job of the party to make sure the field doesn’t look ridiculous in the process. The combination of desperation and moderators who weren’t skilled at keeping answers to a consistent time frame (either mostly staying within the official limits, or evenly allowing overages), nor were they clear about who was allowed to talk next. So candidates spent much of the evening talking over each other, cutting each other off, and commenting on the debate process.

The moderators weren’t great, but they don’t choose the format. And it’s not like they have extensive training as referees. Everyone was put in a position to fail. Once they lost control, there wasn’t much chance of making sure to balance out the difficult questions and the softballs. Not much opportunity to get the higher polling candidates a little more time, but make sure everyone gets to go first sometimes. So what to do to avoid this nightmare from repeating?

There are two more debates on the docket for the 2020 primary season. March 15 in Phoenix, leading up to a few key contests on the 17th. Then a TBD in April. Mercifully, that’s all for now. But 2024 will be here before we can believe it, and I’m positive both parties will have overly large fields again. The 2016 Republicans and 2020 Democrats have both taken their time withdrawing after losing early primaries and caucuses. Though it’s dangerous to make battle plans based on the previous war, I think the parties should err on the side of assuming a crowd.

This may sound counterintuitive, but one of the most important adjustments is giving candidates more time to talk. When there were 10 or more on stage in the summer/fall, they were often limited to 45 seconds on first comment, 30 on a rebuttal. This is now frequently lengthened to a little over a minute, but still not adequate. It’s not like we’re going to re-create the Lincoln-Douglas debates here, but you’d be amazed at how telling a 2 minute response is. That’s when the candidates who have something important to say are most rewarded. If you’ve forced yourself to watch any of the CNN town halls done with one candidate at a time, the difference when they’re not on a tight time limit is palpable.

It’s often more productive when a debate has a theme. In previous cycles, this was more common. Voters are indicating they don’t care a ton about foreign policy this season, so you can skip that for now. But they easily could have done a full debate on the economy. Or health care. You get the idea. Rotating topics and longer response times prevents repetition of the same statements and same arguments each time.

It shouldn’t be on the moderators to decide who gets to go over on time. If they have a full 2 minutes (I’d even go 2.5 at such point that there are only 3 or 4 people on stage), and say 90 seconds for rebuttal, and there are warning lights, it’s completely feasible to just cut the mic when time is up. If you’re feeling really generous, 10 seconds past the allotted time. If someone wants to weigh in, they’d need to buzz in, like on Jeopardy. And also like Jeopardy, if they buzz too soon, it would lock them out. The mic would only turn on for the person who buzzed first once they were cleared to.

This sounds like a lot of trouble to go to. It feels like we’re treating the candidates like elementary school kids. But did you see that last night? The major national political parties are a shadow of their historical selves. They exist to do two things. Act as a conduit for funding and manage the debate process. If nothing else, they need to get this correct.

Meanwhile, Biden won. He wasn’t great. But he was decent, better than usual. Angry Joe is >>>> than sleepy Joe. No, his statement that 150 million Americans have died from gun violence since 2007 was not correct. Sure, he still can’t get his words out sometimes. But he entered the debate with a lead in South Carolina. Bernie didn’t have the best night. Warren did well enough to keep her base, which holds down leakage to Bernie, Buttigieg, or Klobuchar. Also good for Biden. Bloomberg was better than last time, but still isn’t good at this. Given that Super Tuesday votes are already happening, that was good for Joe too.

House Whip and South Carolina political legend James Clyburn endorsed Biden this morning. It was all queued up, but if he’d had a bad debate, who knows. The media cycle coming out of the debate was positive. The endorsement will kick off another positive round. After yesterday, not only is Biden likely to win, but his odds of getting a decent 5 to 7 point margin are decent too. Should he win by double-digits, the full Biden Comeback Narrative will launch just in time to catch the Super Tuesday voters who didn’t go early.

Steyer was cutting in to Biden’s South Carolina support. He still hasn’t learned debate presence. Buttigieg did well, but not well enough to peel votes away. Klobuchar was solid enough, but not memorable. Given the playing field, given Biden’s capabilities, given where we are in the contest, it really couldn’t have gone any better for him. He’s got a long road to stop Bernie, but for the first time in weeks, maybe months, Biden had an unquestionably positive debate and press cycle. Whatever happens on Saturday, he finally closed.

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