Al Roker: Does anyone care about the Democratic debate’s opening round?


Call this one a Kinsleyan gaffe from NBC’s Al Roker, who makes the mistake of saying what nearly everyone else is thinking. His network will host the two-night, dual-round Democratic debate extravaganza, which premiers a week from tonight in prime time. NBC’s betting that the rest of TV Land will be more enthusiastic than its own on-air commenter:

NBC’s “Today” show co-host Al Roker dismissed the 2020 presidential candidates who will participate in the first night of the two-day presidential debate Wednesday morning.

The first night of the debate, which is scheduled for next Wednesday, will be headlined by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The second night features former Vice President Joe Biden and independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Roker said the second night is “the main event,” before adding, “Well you look at the first group, who cares?”

Roker’s kidding, of course — NBC cares, and very deeply, about committing two nights of prime time to this mess. Last cycle’s Democratic debates were ratings poison, in part because the DNC did its best to make sure they didn’t attract too many eyeballs. Donald Trump made the Republican debates into Imperial Roman spectacles, drawing yuuuuge ratings but also creating more problems for the RNC and its media partners. With a similar number of people on stage, NBC and the DNC hope they can create the same level of interest without the same number of problems.

Good luck with that. In my column today at The Week, I credit the DNC with learning a lesson from its own mistakes in the 2015-16 primary cycle. However, they’re repeating a big mistake that Republicans made, and perhaps in doing so playing right into Donald Trump’s hands:

Needless to say, the crowded stages didn’t produce much enlightenment on policy or values. The first debate had panels of 10 and seven candidates for two hours of television time each. After accounting for commercials, that only left candidates in either debate with less than 12 minutes of talking time each, split into short snippets of time and several topics. Instead of debates, the time restrictions and the number of participants ended up producing nothing more substantive than insults and sloganeering.

Given the incentives produced in this format, it seems unsurprising in retrospect that the process rewarded the one candidate with a close association to professional wrestling. Not only did Donald Trump consistently steal the show through personal attacks on his competitors, he mixed it up with the moderators as well. He dominated the time allotments, although even then Trump only spoke for 10 minutes in the initial Fox News debate. (Sitting governor Scott Walker ended up with five minutes out of two hours.)

As the cycle wore on, the dynamics of the dual debate process wore out everyone. By the time of the late January debate in Des Moines just before the caucuses, they had become similar to the old schoolyard game King of the Hill; the candidates took turns climbing on top of one another while Trump took potshots at everyone.

It’s not as though the DNC has no other options:

One has to wonder why the DNC didn’t choose to adopt a different format rather than the two-ring circus model tested by the GOP. For example, the amount of time available for this round of debates, outside of commercial breaks, should be around 200 minutes of air time. That would allow for a series of one-on-one debates of 20 minutes each with all qualifying candidates. They might not get to every topic, and some of the matchups might be lopsided, but each candidate would at least get equal time to showcase their skills and/or expose their deficiencies in a real discussion. It would present the party’s contenders in a much more dignified fashion than we’re likely to witness next week — and give more room for substance, too.

Next week’s spectacle will be great for pundits and true believers, who will rehash the zingers with glee for days afterward. Everyone else will wonder why the DNC chose gladiatorial combat to pick a nominee, especially with the gladiatorial champeen licking his chops in the wings. The DNC still has time this cycle to learn its lesson. Will they?

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