I understand that an organization that takes on the responsibility of sponsoring and organizing a political debate sets the format and tone. It's too bad CNN opted for what I guess they hoped would be entertainment over substance, wasting their opportunity to let us hear what the candidates have to say about some of the vital issues facing the country in this watershed election. From the opening cattle call of candidates to the stage, to the last frivolous question (which we now know was chosen over a more substantive one), the debate felt more like a pumped-up sports event than a debate among presidential candidates.
And CNN continued the tendency of the presidential season to front-load questions to the front runners. And didn't the questions seem intended to create more heat than light--create conflict, testy interactions and perhaps juicy newsbites? How many minutes before anybody but Clinton, Edwards and Obama got to speak? We know what that does-- it encourages the image of inevitability that discourages a breakout candidate.
The candidates themselves unfortunately took the bait most of the time. Chris Dodd, though, seemed able to side-step the baited questions most creatively and to find the more substantive take on the questions. Obama let himself get trapped in the headlights with the driver's license question. He tried, I think successfully, to clarify his position on nuclear power--he is not 'for' it, but would not dismiss it out of hand. We do need to question him-- his less satisfying answer on what to do about nuclear waste if he's going to keep nuclear power as an option. Edwards and Obama made the mistake of trying to go after Hillary in the same way twice, and she was ready for them. Hillary was all we've come to expect of her: clever and prepared.
Kucinich, Richardson, and Biden continue to commit themselves pretty well and seem to be good men, but they don't get fair airtime. Biden is a pretty funny guy, isn't he? You'd think a serious attempt could be made to set up a more random and less manipulative order for the candidates to answer in. Obviously, if they're going to be on the stage, give them equal airtime no matter what the polls say.
Let's hope the next debate's organizers are working on creating equal time for the candidates who appear as well as working on formulating questions that shed more light than heat.