Halfway through the first Democratic primary debate in Miami Wednesday night, NBC brought on a second shift of moderators — four hours over two nights, you’ve got to conserve your energy. Chuck Todd began to ask a question about gun violence. Then he stopped.
What were those sounds? There was talking coming from everywhere. The previous moderators’ microphones, it appeared, had been left on. Ten potential future presidents smiled and stood puzzled. There were so many voices, no one could make anything out.
The snafu, on NBC’s most-anticipated planned political event of the year so far, forced the network to cut to commercial. But it was also the first debate in a nutshell: a lot of talking, but, with 10 voices hoping not to get lost in the mix, less actual debating.
A degree of overwhelmingness was built into the event long before NBC went into “Please Stand By” mode. The debate had to accommodate, between Wednesday and Thursday, enough candidates to field two baseball teams plus managers.
The Democratic Party took pains to divide the 20 eligible candidates so that there would be no undercard debate. But let’s be real: This was an undercard debate. Or rather, it was a nine-way undercard debate, interspersed with an interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who received few direct challenges from rivals, despite, or because of, being the top-polling candidate in the group.
The tableau of the 10 hopefuls showed how this debate season would be different from those past: diverse in background (not to mention height), with three female candidates on this night alone. Ms. Warren received the first question and, by dint of alphabetical order, gave the last closing remarks.
But in between, there were a lot of guys jostling, and talking over one another, to grab attention.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, looming at one end of the stage, nudged and honked his way into the proceedings like an SUV cutting in to Midtown traffic. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas gave a lengthy chunk of his first answer in Spanish.
Representative Tim Ryan and former Representative John Delaney called for notice, like hungry birds in a nest. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey carried the attention contest at least in terms of volume, speaking more than anyone else on stage.
There were also attempts to claim lanes, ideological or otherwise. When the governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, interjected to assert his bona fides on reproductive rights, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota wryly pointed out, “There’s three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” (The third was Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii).
There was a scrambling-for-the-lifeboats energy to the debate, everyone well aware that there will be only so many seats to carry rivals to the more selective debates of the fall. Candidates came with targeted pitches and zingers and catchphrases familiar to the faithful audience. (Ms. Warren got some of the night’s biggest cheers referencing her “I have a plan” mantra.)
It was, nonetheless, a change from the pro-wrestling 2016 debates that introduced Donald J. Trump as candidate. The disagreements were sometimes sharp but not insulting. No one attacked a moderator, and the moderators, while calling out candidates for evading answers, didn’t prod one-on-one fights as sometimes happened in the last cycle.
If a season of debates is like a TV serial — arcs developing over time, each episode drawing on conflicts introduced in the last — this one was a big ensemble pilot with a lot of exposition and some quick sketching of themes, aspirants cramming bits of stump speech into one-minute answers.
This seemed to stifle candidates like Mr. O’Rourke, the former punk band member who favors long windups building to emotional choruses. Notably, the poll leaders did not come in for much direct attack, but — perhaps seeming a more vulnerable or safer target — Mr. O’Rourke did, from Mr. de Blasio and the former housing secretary Julián Castro, who stood out with passionate answers throughout the night.
Even if the debate didn’t shed much light, the stage did. NBC built a high-luminosity arena of technodemocracy, every possible surface glowing, the candidates parked at translucent prisms that glowed blue and winked red when they spoke. (A bit of mixed partisan-color messaging.) The opening backdrop, what appeared to be an elongated, low-rise rendering of the White House — or at least a white house — matched the field: wide and with a lot of room, but with stature only toward the middle of the stage.
It is, of course, a long time before the 2020 election, or even the first votes of the primary. There’s another debate Thursday night, and plenty of time after for the field to whittle itself down to a more manageable size.
In the meantime, the message from Miami to America was: Please bear with us, while we work through some technical difficulties.
James Poniewozik is the chief television critic. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent 16 years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic. @poniewozik
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