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This may be the last Democratic Party Primary Debate.  Moved from my hometown of Phoenix to Washington DC – with minimal staffing and no audience.

It was indeed, different.

Yes.  The New York Times expected “fewer zingers and zippy sound bites,” but those that were delivered (“People are looking for results vs. a revolution,” or “It’s good that you had that idea 30 years ago”), just sounded flat.

CNN intentionally spaced the podiums (technically, they are called “lecterns,” but who am I to quibble with CNN?)  six feet apart in accordance with “social distancing” rules – but it reminded me of the first televised Presidential debate between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960 (I wasn’t even born yet, but I’ve seen video.  They were sitting in chairs with the moderator in between the two).

Although the two candidates are accustomed to the immediate reactions of the crowd during a debate, this format tempered their passion, vitriol, and snarkiness of the last debate.  But hey, they went from seven to TWO in a manner of three weeks – so the dynamics were bound to change. And I believe it worked in the best interests of both candidates:

  • Biden typically doesn’t fare well during the debates (stumbling over words, using the wrong word, etc.) but this was less stressful and calmer, so he sounded much more coherent.
  • Sanders is known to rant and rave, pointing his finger to make a point.  This was calmer, so he was calmer too!

My fear was that the moderators would pander to the front-runner, Vice President Joe Biden.  But that is not the case.  This was the most consistent, equitable and fair distribution of airtime, number of questions, and opportunities to respond and rebut to a question than any other debate in the 2019-20 season:

Good news: The ground rules changed from 75 seconds for an initial response to 90 seconds – with 45 seconds to rebut or respond.  Wow!  That will allow more time for substantive discussion of the issues, right?  AND the Moderator Jake Tapper encouraged a “conversation between the two of you.”  That was just code word to “keep talking…I’ll let you answer the question, not answer the question, pivot to another topic or just keep talking….as long as you don’t go over time.”

RARELY did they follow up on a question. Although Moderator Bash identified a newsworthy bit when she confirmed with Biden that his VP nominee would be a woman.  She then queried Sanders who said, “in all likelihood, it would be a progressive woman.”  Huh?  That would warrant a follow-up question.  Or the question to Biden about his position on Sanctuary Cities.  He replied, “No.” with no follow-up explanation.  Huh?  Tell me more Joe!  Perfect time for the moderator to intervene.

Much of the immediate post-conversation about this debate was that this was a “spirited back and forth” about “substantive issues.”   Let’s talk about each of these:

  1.  Spirited Back and Forth was more like a free-for-all like the last debate.  Moderator Jake Tapper asked the first round of questions about the coronavirus.  And Biden even said, “I see my time is up here.” and the moderator went on to ask Sanders a different question about the virus.  It was pretty straightforward for the first four questions.  No conversation.  And I’m thinking, “Oh, this is not going to be good.”
    Moderator Dana Bash then stepped in and asked if the candidates would support a national lockdown – and that’s when we got into an actual conversation between the candidates.  Sometimes, they looked for recognition from the moderator, and other times, they just added to the conversation.  Which I think is great – as long as they follow the 90/45 second ground rules – which they unilaterally didn’t.
    And let’s talk about staying on topic and answering the moderators’ questions.  NOT!  Senator Bernie Sanders was the master of pivoting the question to talk about his agenda (are we talking about climate change, coronavirus or healthcare?)
    That being said, there was some interesting back and forth between the candidates, so I applaud the moderators just letting the conversation flow.  I just wish the moderators exerted a little bit more control and guidance, especially when the candidates got into the weeds (e.g the nuance of Warren’s bankruptcy plan/public college tuition or praising a country ruled by a dictatorship).  In comparison to the coronavirus, it pales in comparison!
  2. Substantive Issues.  I’m not surprised that the first two topics were about the coronavirus and the economic fallout.  Fair enough.  We needed to talk about that first and foremost.
    The third topic was on their electability (Sanders Revolution vs. Biden Improve the System).  Sanders directly confronted Biden saying “you contradicted yourself” about Social Security.  They then spent FAR too much time wrestling the nuances of “he said, he said.”  So much so that Moderator Bash used it as an opportunity to change the subject TO Social Security, posing a question to Senator Sanders, who didn’t even let her complete her question, and then didn’t even bother to answer the question directly! More nuances between Biden’s positions that have morphed over time….which, in the big scheme of things, I am wondering, “Why are we quibbling over who was the first to support the Defense of Marriage Act when the world is hunkering down to combat a pandemic?”

Yes indeed. The coronavirus is at the forefront of most of our minds and actions so I would not be surprised if this is the last Democratic Primary Debate for 2020. Therefore, the next debate will pit each party’s candidate for the Presidency on Tuesday, September 29th.  I’ll be reporting on that debate as well!

For more information, check out my website at www.RulesAnalyst.com.  Book me now to comment (live, Zoom, or pre-recorded interviews) on the next debate by calling me at 480.399.8489 or set up a time to talk here

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Kristin Arnold
Kristin Arnold
Award-winning author Kristin Arnold is an expert panel moderator and professional meeting facilitator.
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