It’s unusual for a TV host to boast that the show we’re about to watch is the smallest ever. But that’s what CNN’s Wolf Blitzer did before Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, declaring that this was “the smallest debate stage yet this cycle.”
As the last forum before the first 2020 votes are cast, it felt like the end of a phase. The debates have functioned like a de facto national primary, conducted through the media and polls, which whittled a score of candidates on the stage in June down to six Tuesday night.
The smaller cast came with bigger expectations. The debate at Drake University in Iowa seemed primed for some defining clashes, especially after a feisty December debate that introduced the public to the political semiotics of wine caves.
But despite or because of the high stakes, the six candidates largely opted not to give CNN the fight that it was anticipating — at least, not while the microphones were on.
It was not for lack of trying by the moderators. Mr. Blitzer and his colleagues, Abby D. Phillip of CNN and Brianne Pfannenstiel of The Des Moines Register, pointed up candidates’ recent critiques of one another: Senator Bernie Sanders’s criticism of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2002 vote for the war in Iraq; Senator Amy Klobuchar’s knocks against Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s experience.
But prodded to spar, the candidates more often chose to strike at President Trump, whether the subject was Iran and troops in the Middle East, health care or impeachment.
This gloves-on approach was noticeable when it came to a widely anticipated topic, the charge, first reported by CNN, that Mr. Sanders had told Senator Elizabeth Warren during a 2018 meeting that a woman could not win the 2020 election.
The two candidates managed to flatly contradict each other — he said he never said it, she said he did — while quickly moving on to deliver their readied arguments on why a woman could be elected. “Bernie is my friend, and I’m not here to fight with Bernie,” Ms. Warren said, then pointed out that the only candidates onstage to win all their elections were herself and Ms. Klobuchar.
Media critics often argue that debates should not be analyzed as if they were theater. This one proved them right — it was adamantly anti-theatrical, so flagrantly did it break Chekhov’s rule that a gun on the stage in the first act needs to go off before the curtain.
The result was a debate whose answers were substantive, albeit a little repetitive for someone who’s watched every debate since the summer. Of course, many reasonable people with healthy lives do not fall in that category. For viewers just tuning in, the questions had the feel of a recap, familiar but maybe more useful for the non-obsessive. (However, the process and electability questions, inviting the candidates to play pundit to their own campaigns, were not a good use of anyone’s time.)
It was not the slugfest that CNN seemed to expect. In fairness, there are reasons besides ratings for moderators to try to pick fights. Not only can arguments draw real contrasts, in a primary debate they can model for voters how the candidate will hold up in a general election.
As Ms. Phillip put it to Mr. Biden, “The eventual nominee will face President Trump, who has no problem mocking people, using insulting nicknames, slinging mud and telling lies. The debate against him will make tonight’s debate look like child’s play.”
Afterward, CNN’s progressive commentator Van Jones was doubtful that “any of these people are prepared for what Donald Trump’s going to do to us.” Next time out, CNN might consider planting a Trump impersonator onstage, to keep things lively.
TV, which feeds on conflict, gravitates toward the prizefight model of debates: A candidate “hits” an opponent, scores “knockouts” and “wins,” collecting votes like a rich boxing purse. Arguably, though, that isn’t 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 rocketed in the polls briefly. By Tuesday, she was in the audience with the rest of us.
In the end, CNN got its most dramatic moment after the microphones were off, when Ms. Warren appeared to reject a handshake from Mr. Sanders and the two seemed to trade tense words. In a spin-room interview, the businessman Tom Steyer told MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, “I don’t know what they were saying” — a little hard to believe, given that he was standing in the middle of the exchange, but if so, a sad waste of the gajillion dollars he spent to buy his golden ticket onto the stage.
What the two candidates said for a few seconds may not be the most pressing issue to Americans. But it was, maybe, a symbol of a monthslong debate serial that has rarely seemed to change the race in a lasting way. For all the attention to these productions, there’s the sense that the real show is going on elsewhere.