So here we were, smack in the middle of swirling crises, at home and half a world away, as we tuned in last week to catch six Democratic presidential hopefuls clashing in their last debate before the Iowa caucuses.
It was hard to keep track of all the calamities that had been flashing across our news screens: a presidentially ordered assassination of a terror-bent Iranian general; all those fast-changing official explanations on just what President Donald Trump really knew (or never knew) before he ordered the hit; the riots in Tehran protesting Iran’s shoot-down of an airplane it mistook for a U.S. missile; and of course, the presidential impeachment trial in the Senate, as new evidence has been surfacing with virtually every news cycle.
But the six Democrats seemed bizarrely content to just snip and snipe at each other and never chose to forthrightly fire away at Trump’s well-documented lies, distortions and failures that have so tarnished America’s reputation around the world. Blame can be evenly shared by the six Democratic presidential hopefuls. Not one of them had come to the debate locked and loaded to really lambast Trump with the sort of vigor Trump relishes every time he blasts away at Democrats, in his preferred reflex responses.
Then again, not one of the Democrats seemed to have come ready to actually challenge and debate any of their opponents on real issues. Instead, the Democrats’ leading challengers seemed content with just snipping and sniping at each other. They seemed to be hoping the three news media moderators and facilitators would take the lead in doing their debate work by asking questions that challenged each candidate’s weaknesses in the questions.
And that gets us to what is really wrong with the way our political debates have evolved (see also: devolved). Our presidential debates are really not debates at all anymore. And the blame for that really belongs with just one key segment of our democratic political process: It is my colleagues in the news media who have failed in their roles of being moderators and facilitators of political debates. And it has never been more apparent than it was last week.
The debate began in a most unfortunate way — and frankly that was because of the line of questioning pursued by the anchoring moderator, my longtime friend Wolf Blitzer of CNN. Wolf began by very properly focusing on the latest war-and-peace crisis in the Middle East. “Just this month, the United States and Iran were on the brink of war, which has reignited the debate over America’s role in the world …,” he began. But he then pursued it by merely asking each candidate why they were the best candidate to be commander in chief — which of course was just a lobbed softball each candidate could hit out of the park.
But suppose Blitzer had told all candidates: “Let’s start by imagining this is not a debate stage — you all are in the real White House Situation Room. You’ve been given the alarming information the president had about the events in the Middle East. How would each of you handle this crisis? Would you order the assassination of Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani? Who would you consult? What steps would you take?”
And after each candidate spoke, Blitzer could have told the rest of them: “This is your debate. So if you disagree with someone, this is the moment you must speak up, challenge and debate them.”
Also, it has become accepted that journalists serving as debate moderators will ask “gotcha” questions that are simply not debatable by other candidates.
Typical of this was when CNN’s Abby Phillip, an excellent journalist, asked Sen. Bernie Sanders about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recent claim that in 2018, Sanders once told her he didn’t believe a woman could be elected president. It’s a claim Sanders had flatly denied, noting Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 3 million actual votes in 2016. Still at the debate, the correspondent asked: “Why did you say that?” So, of course, Sanders denied it, yet again.
And that’s the way it was. Two time-wasted hours later, we found ourselves relying, once again, on the wisdom of just one pundit — the legendary baseball manager Casey Stengel.
After years of managing the champion New York Yankees, Casey wound up at the helm of the brand new Mets, hapless losers whose ways once led a Casey to be quoted by my pal, writer Jimmy Breslin, as asking in frustration: “Can’t anybody here play this game?”