It is unusual for a television presenter to boast that the program we are about to watch is the smallest of all. But that's what Wolf Blitzer of CNN did before the Democratic debate on Tuesday night, stating that this was "the smallest stage of debate to date of this cycle."
As the last forum was cast before the first votes of 2020, it felt like the end of a phase. The debates have functioned as a de facto national primary, conducted through the media and surveys, which reduced a number of candidates on stage in June until six o'clock on Tuesday night.
The smallest cast arrived with higher expectations. The debate at Drake University in Iowa seemed prepared for some defining clashes, especially after an intense debate in December that introduced the public into the political semiotics of wine caves.
But despite the high stakes, the six candidates largely chose not to give CNN the fight he was anticipating, at least, not while the microphones were on.
It was not due to lack of attempts by the moderators. Blitzer and his colleagues, Abby D. Phillip of CNN and Brianne Pfannenstiel, of The Des Moines Register, highlighted the recent criticism of the candidates: the criticism of Senator Bernie Sanders to the vote of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2002 over the war in Iraq; The blows of Senator Amy Klobuchar against the experience of Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
But driven to train, candidates most often chose to attack President Trump, whether the issue was Iran and the troops in the Middle East, medical care or dismissal.
This glove approach was notable when it was a widely anticipated issue, the charge, first reported by CNN, that Sanders had told Senator Elizabeth Warren during a 2018 meeting that a woman could not win the election of 2020
The two candidates managed to contradict themselves outright: she said she never said it, she said yes, as she moved quickly to present her prepared arguments about why a woman could be chosen. "Bernie is my friend and I am not here to fight with Bernie," Warren said, and then pointed out that the only candidates on stage to win all their elections were her and Klobuchar.
Media critics often argue that debates should not be analyzed as if they were theater. He proved that they were right: he was flatly anti-theatrical, so flagrant that he broke Chekhov's rule that a gun on stage in the first act must be fired before the curtain.
The result was a debate whose answers were substantive, although a bit repetitive for someone who has seen all the debates since the summer. Of course, many reasonable people with healthy lives do not fall into that category. For viewers who were simply tuning in, the questions had the feeling of a summary, familiar but perhaps more useful for the non-obsessive. (However, the process and eligibility questions, which invite candidates to play as experts in their own campaigns, were not a good use of anyone's time).
It wasn't the fight that CNN seemed to expect. To be fair, there are reasons in addition to qualifications for moderators to try to pick fights. The arguments can not only generate real contrasts, but in a primary debate they can model for the voters how the candidate will remain in a general election.
As Mrs. Phillip put it to Mr. Biden, “The final candidate will face President Trump, who has no trouble making fun of people, using insulting nicknames, throwing mud and telling lies. The debate against him will make tonight's debate seem like a child's play. "
Afterwards, CNN progressive commentator Van Jones doubted that "any of these people are prepared for what Donald Trump is going to do to us." Next time, CNN might consider planting a Trump impersonator on stage to keep things alive.
Television, which feeds on conflicts, gravitates towards the prize-fighting debate model: a candidate "hits" an opponent, scores "knockouts" and "wins", collecting votes like a rich boxing bag. However, it could be said that this is not automatically productive for voters or candidates. The most notable attack of this debate cycle was on Mr. Biden by Senator Kamala Harris in the first debate. She shot in the polls briefly. By Tuesday, she was in the audience with the rest of us.
In the end, CNN had its most dramatic moment after the microphones were turned off, when Warren He seemed to reject Mr. Sanders' handshake and the two seemed to exchange tense words. In an interview in the spinning room, businessman Tom Steyer told Chris Matthews of MSNBC: "I don't know what they were saying," a little hard to believe, since he was standing in the middle of the exchange, but if so, a sad loss of the billions of dollars he spent to buy his golden ticket on stage.
What the two candidates said for a few seconds may not be the most pressing issue for Americans. But it was, perhaps, a symbol of a series of discussions of months that rarely seemed to change the race in a lasting way. For all the attention to these productions, there is a feeling that the real show is happening somewhere else.