Democratic Debate: Worst Questions From Moderators - Rolling Stone
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Debate Night Was a Rough One for the Moderators: Here Are 4 Lowlights

What the hell is an “insurance town,” and why wouldn’t you let them talk about climate change?

CNN's Democratic debate stageCNN's Democratic debate stage

CNN's Democratic debate stage

Charlie Neibergall/AP/Shutterstock

Three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, six candidates dutifully assembled in Des Moines Tuesday night for the final debate before voting begins. With polls showing a virtual dead heat in Iowa, the stakes were high and the spotlights bright. But the questions? The questions were mystifyingly inane. 

No questions about Puerto Rico, in a state of emergency after a series of devastating earthquakes. Roe v. Wade sits in its most precarious position since it was decided in 1973, but there were no questions about abortion or reproductive rights. No questions on tech policy, labor policy, guns, or immigration. The single question about education — amid historic teacher strikes and dramatic underfunding of public schools — was used to ask former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg to defend his assertion that the children of wealthy families shouldn’t be entitled to free public college.

But it wasn’t just the topics CNN and the Des Moines Register moderators focused on, it was the determined framing of the questions they posed. In an era of endless war abroad, painfully and often prohibitively expensive health care and education at home, and a climate crisis that threatens to make the planet inhospitable to its 7 billion human inhabitants, the challenges of change were treated as paramount or even insurmountable, while the costs of maintaining the status quo barely mentioned.

Here were four of the moderators’ worst moments: 

Forget it, Jake, it’s an insurance town.

Among the evening’s most asinine queries was one that was ostensibly not from a moderator at all, but from Iowa Democratic voters asked by CNN to share “their most pressing questions.” Only one of those questions was actually asked Tuesday, and it came from “Edward” in Des Moines. “Des Moines is an insurance town. What happens to all the insurance industry — the health-insurance industry here if there is Medicare for All? What happens to all the jobs and the livelihoods of the people that live in insurance towns like Des Moines?” Edward wrote. 

Later, the moderators dropped the pretense and asked simply: “Senator Sanders, your campaign proposals would double federal spending over the next decade, an unprecedented level of spending not seen since World War II. How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?” 

The candidates were too polite to tell the moderators that a country cannot, technically, go bankrupt. People can, though — and a half a million households are driven to bankruptcy by medical debt every year in America. Millions more Americans — a quarter of the population — delay seeking medical care because they can’t afford it, but, in this framing, the most important thing is protecting the industry that profits from all that debt. Sanders, to his credit, gave a direct answer: “We build into our Medicare for All program a transition fund of many, many billions of dollars that will provide for up to five years income and health care and job training for those people.” — T.S.

It’s one war, Michael, what could it cost? $10?

The moderators for Tuesday’s debate were quick to grill the candidates on how they’d pay for their ambitious health-insurance plans. But there were no comparable questions when the topic shifted to war and deploying U.S. troops overseas. Sen. Elizabeth Warren — best known for her domestic policy chops like her “two-cent” wealth tax, her proposal for universal childcare, and her plan to break up big tech companies — stood out from the pack on the question of whether to keep U.S. troops in the Middle East. As president, she said she would pull all combat troops out of the Middle East. She also gave a scathing critique of the corruption seen in the revolving door between the Pentagon and private defense contractors.

One of Warren’s best lines of the night came when she talked about the parade of decorated U.S. generals who each year come before Congress and claim that American forces have “turned the corner” in the Afghanistan war, the longest armed conflict in the country’s history. “On the Senate Armed Services Committee, we have one general after another in Afghanistan who comes in and says, ‘You know, we’ve just turned the corner, and now it’s all going to be different,” Warren said. “Then what happens? It’s all the same for another year. Someone new comes in and we’ve just turned the corner.”

“We’ve turned the corner so many times we’re going in circles in these regions,” she quipped. “This has got to stop. It’s not enough to say someday we’re going to get out.” — A.K.

Why are you so obsessed with avoiding the end of the world?

“We’re going to get to climate change, but I’d like to stay on trade.”

Sanders was noting broad environmental opposition to President Trump’s NAFTA update and was pushing for a bit more climate conversation when the moderator cut him off, in the interest of refocusing on trade. The sentence is a tiramisu of bullshit, with each layer richer than the last: On the surface, it’s absurd (as Sanders noted) to try and disentangle “trade” from “climate,” given how interconnected the two are. A stable climate has everything to do with our ability to exchange goods and services around the world, and the rules governing those exchanges — such as the NAFTA update Sanders was discussing — will go a long, long way toward determining whether we’ll have a stable climate.

More broadly, however, wasn’t it past time for the moderators to “get to” the climate crisis? There are lots of issues that matter, but it’s damn-near impossible to find an issue where a successful outcome isn’t predicated on a livable climate. And on that front, folks, the news is not good: There is zero doubt that we are tampering with the planet’s ability to sustain human life at the current level, and there’s massive doubt that we, as a society, have the collective wherewithal to chart a course that stops doing that. And so any time the candidates who are maybe about to run the world want to talk about how to avoid breaking the world, it’s bad journalism to insist on changing the subject. — P.R.

We choose truth over facts.

“Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

CNN reported on Monday that Sanders told Warren in 2018 that America wouldn’t elect a woman president, and the network would be damned if it wasn’t going to fashion their “scoop” — which Warren confirmed and Sanders denied — into a sizable chunk of Tuesday night’s debate.

The issue was initially brought up in a question to Sanders, who again denied the report, citing his previous public statements supporting the idea of a female president, as well as the fact that Hillary Clinton bested Trump by 3 million votes in 2016. But immediately after Sanders threw up his hands at the implication, the CNN moderator made a point of dismissing his denial out of hand, turning to Warren to ask how she responded to what Sanders had just said he didn’t say.

Would it have served the debate better to have instead asked Warren and Sanders for more context about the exchange? Probably. Or, hear us out, maybe the moderators could have condensed the whole conversation, rather than spending nearly 10 minutes discussing a 2018 exchange between candidates and zero minutes total on reproductive rights, gun control, labor policy, federal judges, and immigration. — R.B.



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