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Debate Fatigue Is Wearing Out the Democratic Presidential Campaign

Wednesday’s debate, the fifth since June, followed a familiar script featuring well-worn talking points. At this point, the primary’s showcase events feel less like debates and more like telethons.

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In previous debates, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker have implored the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to play nice together on stage. “I’ve had the privilege of working with or being friends with everybody on this stage, and tearing each other down because we have a different plan to me is unacceptable,” Booker said in October. A month earlier, Buttigieg worried about the debates “becoming unwatchable” because of contentious exchanges between the candidates.

On Wednesday, MSNBC and The Washington Post cohosted 10 candidates at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, the fifth Democratic presidential debate since June. Buttigieg’s recent surge—a poll last week by The Des Moines Register and CNN showed him having 25 percent support among likely Democratic voters in Iowa—has frustrated Elizabeth Warren’s momentum. Pundits expected Warren, and others, to take on Buttigieg on Wednesday, much as her rivals (including Buttigieg) piled on the Massachusetts senator in the October debate. The major candidates declined to engage with Buttigieg directly, though Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard ridiculed his tentative support for sending U.S. troops to fight drug cartels in Mexico. There was no big brawl, and there were few stark contrasts among the candidates. It was a friendly debate; it was, to borrow Buttigieg’s term, “unwatchable.”

It wasn’t even boring for public policy’s sake. Briefly, Warren, Booker, and Tom Steyer discussed federal housing policy, including concerns about affordability and discriminatory practices, though Julián Castro, Barack Obama’s housing secretary, was conspicuously absent from the stage, having failed to meet the entry requirements. If there is one positive feature of the primary’s debate schedule, it’s that the field of candidates has gradually narrowed to include fewer than a dozen participants, and the events are broadcast in a single evening, rather than spread over multiple days. And yet Wednesday’s debate felt less focused on any specific policy concern, and less essential in the larger narrative of the campaign, than any of the previous iterations. Flagging candidates—like Booker, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, businessman Andrew Yang, and Steyer—continue to stump from well-worn, months-old talking points in prime time, if only to continue raising money through the exposure from a national TV audience to fund increasingly expensive campaign operations. The primary is not a marathon. It’s a telethon.

Wednesday was the third debate cohosted by MSNBC. CNN has hosted two, in July and October, the former being notable for Warren’s emergence as a front-runner, and the latter largely responsible for Buttigieg’s recent surge. The Democratic National Committee, which administers the debates, has outsourced a great deal of civic engagement to friendly cable news networks (so, excluding Fox News), despite the cable news networks having made a spectacular mess of TV news media and U.S. political culture in general. ABC News and Univision cohosted the most sensible debate in September, which heightened the party’s internal disagreements about wealth, taxation, and “Medicare for All.” The debates have helped the 2020 presidential candidates raise money, and some have seen sporadic shifts in the polls. California Senator Kamala Harris briefly peaked after she confronted Biden in the first debate about his opposition to federal busing mandates in the 1970s. In recent months, Warren emerged as the leading candidate for progressives who might be looking for an alternative to Sanders. Buttigieg rose as soon as he challenged Warren to outline her plans to finance Medicare for All. The debates have heightened the contrast between Warren and Buttigieg while demoralizing, if not outright humiliating, several candidates who are polling below 3 percent.

The candidates who fail to qualify for a prime-time debate are resigned to obsolescence, a lesson learned by Castro, author Marianne Williamson, and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, all of whom remain in contention, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who have both dropped out of the race. The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates live and die by their inclusion (if not their excellence or incompetence) on the debate stage, and the cable news networks reap the (albeit diminishing) TV ratings while reasserting their dominance in U.S. political culture. It’s much harder to quantify how these debates might ideally serve voters, who have so far been subjected to 17 hours of question-and-answering, not to mention the town halls and the spin rooms, which have been televised months before the earliest voting commences. The debates have revealed Biden’s weaknesses, but his supporters don’t seem to care. The debates have boosted new challengers, but they fade just as quickly. The debates have, unquestionably, helped even the most quixotic campaigns raise money. PBS and Politico will cohost the next debate in December in Los Angeles, which Booker managed to qualify for after receiving a flurry of donations during and after Wednesday’s debate. “I have not yet qualified for the December stage and need your help to do that,” Booker said in his closing remarks, imploring viewers to visit his campaign website.

Buttigieg and Booker have repeatedly cautioned the candidates against petty squabbling on stage. They might have ideally cautioned the candidates, and the party, against scheduling so many debates, with so many participants, throughout such a prolonged and crowded contest. The prime-time forums solicit inconsequential gaffes, desperate fundraising emails, and dwindling ratings, among other diminishing returns. The late entrants to the race—former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg and former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick—will almost certainly fail to qualify for any of the remaining debates before the Iowa caucuses. Even though Castro was not on the debate stage Wednesday, he came to Atlanta to campaign. Williamson, who hasn’t qualified for a debate since July, tweeted, “Miss me?” Though she once contributed empathy, as well as comic relief, in her prime-time appearances, Williamson never added much political insight to the overcrowded debate stage. In fairness, on Wednesday, Williamson didn’t miss much.