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A Conspicuous Silence at the Democratic Debate

Despite a team of moderators who didn’t think viewers needed to hear much from him or about climate change, Bernie Sanders roared back with a strong debate performance.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, former vice president Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren react during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. Win McNamee / Getty

Four Democratic debates in, it’s plainly obvious there are two things the media wishes it didn’t have to deal with: climate change and Bernie Sanders.

Let’s start with climate change. “I hope we will discuss it at length tonight,” Sanders, whose climate plan advocate groups have overwhelmingly praised as the strongest in the race, said early on in last night’s debate. No such luck. Last night was the first debate this election where there was not a single question about what is by far the most dangerous and pressing threat to global peace and security.

To put this into perspective, June’s saw four questions on the topic, July’s saw five, and September’s had three (in which one was from a viewer, and another was grist for George Stephanopoulos to ask Joe Biden if Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are too tax-and-spendy and extreme). In fact, the topic was mentioned a mere five separate times last night: by South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, universal basic income advocate Andrew Yang, and, of course, Sanders.

In other words, the corporate media have actually gotten worse at covering the issue over time in these debates, even as they’ve faced increasing criticism for barely acknowledging it exists, and even as alarming headlines and biblical-scale disasters have piled up. Both entities moderating the debate — CNN (“The climate is changing. And we’re doing nothing to stop it”) and the New York Times (“The New York Times has more climate coverage than ever”) — have been running advertisements lately touting their coverage of their crisis. Yet somehow representatives of neither outlet bothered to bring the subject up in one of the year’s more widely watched political media events. This is a disgrace, particularly in the midst of the back-patting, congratulatory discourse that has pervaded the ratings-chasing corporate media in the Trump era.

We did, however, get a long discussion about impeachment to kick off the debate, another lengthy series of responses about how to “check Vladimir Putin’s power on the world stage,” and a significant chunk of time devoted to discussing the various candidates’ ages. We didn’t get a single question about a global ecological emergency, but we did get a six-minute long exchange about gun buybacks between Beto O’Rourke and Buttigieg, two candidates who are almost certainly not going to be the nominee, and a policy they most definitely won’t implement should they somehow ascend to the presidency.

Which brings us to Sanders. It feels tiresome at this point to keep bringing up corporate media bias against the Vermont senator, but whether consciously or not, the debate moderators seem determined to make sure people forget he exists on the stage while desperately trying to elevating a gaggle of nonentities who stubbornly refuse to catch fire in the polls.

Consider that even as Sanders’s polling numbers have stalled, recent polls still have Sanders just about tied with Biden and Warren in Iowa, leading Warren at second place in Nevada, and typically sitting solidly at third place nationally and in various key primary states. So how was this reflected in the candidates’ speaking time last night, according to the New York Times official tracker?

When the dust was settled, Warren spoke for nearly twenty-three minutes, by far the most, probably because as the frontrunner she came under a barrage of attacks. Biden spoke for a little under seventeen minutes, more than three minutes longer than the third-place candidate. And Sanders? He had thirteen minutes of speaking time, putting him narrowly below Amy Klobuchar and O’Rourke, two candidates who after months of campaigning might as well not exist if we go by polling, the measure that more than any other has structured media coverage of this primary contest.

Even this doesn’t really get across how lopsided things were. Just under two and a half hours into the three-hour spectacle, with Warren dominating speaking time and Biden running a distant second, Sanders was all the way down in eighth place, not cracking double-digits and eclipsed by not just Klobuchar and O’Rourke, but Cory Booker — who was on the precipice of quitting the race a couple of weeks back — and Kamala Harris, who is currently polling a distant fourth in her home state.

As in the previous debate, in which Sanders wasn’t called on to answer questions on criminal justice and climate change, this seems to have been an issue with the debate moderation. He answered only one foreign policy question where Biden answered two, and he was entirely left out of the sections on gun control and the Supreme Court, both of which Biden and Warren were asked to weigh in on. He would’ve been excluded from the questions on the opioid crisis, too, but insisted on issuing a response anyway when the moderators asked him about his age and recent heart attack.

To be fair, any presidential debate featuring twelve candidates is exceedingly hectic and difficult to moderate effectively. Yet if this is the problem, there’s a simple solution: cull the field. It is now less than four months before the Iowa caucuses, and only six of these candidates still look remotely competitive at this point — and that’s being generous. While opening up debates to a wide variety of candidates is vitally important, and a welcome change from the corporate media’s typically jealous policing of discourse, it’s now been months of intense campaigning and debating, and candidates like Klobuchar and O’Rourke are still going nowhere. There is a vital debate to be had over the distinct visions and records of Biden, Warren, and Sanders, and packing at least six extra floundering candidates onto the stage only serves to smother it.

In any case, even with these obstacles, Sanders supporters should be heartened by last night’s debate. Coming off a health scare that sparked numerous calls for him to drop out and predictions he wouldn’t make the debate, Sanders proved the heart attack hadn’t slowed him down, putting in a sometimes fiery, sometimes funny performance that’s received quite widespread praise. He even managed to land a blow against Biden late in the night, countering the former vice president’s claim that he’s “the only one on this stage that has gotten anything really big done” by listing off some of Biden’s greatest bipartisan achievements: the Iraq War, NAFTA, and the 2005 anti-consumer bankruptcy bill.

As the current polling frontrunner, Warren was also tested, coming in for frequent attacks that she ably parried. Joe Biden’s claim that he had whipped the votes for her Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under Obama was not only grossly untrue but offensively condescending, which Warren parried with appropriately seething yet polite dismissal. Tulsi Gabbard’s attempts to question Warren’s credentials to be commander in chief of the US military didn’t land, partly undercut by a timely cut to commercial. And Harris’d attempt to draw Warren into her calls to ban Trump from Twitter only served to embarrass Harris, coming as it did in the midst of a discussion of breaking up tech monopolies.

Where the Massachusetts senator did falter was on the topic of health care. Both the moderators and other candidates hit Warren for repeatedly refusing to say whether her support for Sanders’s Medicare for All bill means she would raise taxes, a question she has struggled with both on and off the debate stage. It fell to Sanders to give the straightforward answer he’s now given at several debates, explaining that while government taxes would go up, “the overwhelming majority of people will save money on their health care bills” when his plan eliminates de facto health insurance taxes like premiums and co-pays — earning kudos for his straight talk from Buttigieg, a health care sector–funded opponent of Sanders’s legislation. If Warren is going to continue to serve as a spokesperson for Medicare for All, she’s going to need to either adopt Sanders’s talking point here or come up with an answer better than the obvious dodge she’s using now.

What, if any, impact all this will have on the opinion poll–obsessed coverage of the race going forward remains to be seen. But with Sanders proving he’s far from finished — coupled with the surprise news later that night that he’d secured the endorsements of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — perhaps next month’s moderators will give more time not just to Sanders, but to the climate crisis he’s been consistently warning the public about since at least 2015.