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How The 4th Democratic Presidential Debate Played Out On TV


CNN can be dramatic when it comes to hosting Democratic presidential debates. We saw a bit of that back in July in Michigan.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Donald Trump won this battleground state by fewer than 11,000 votes. And the Democrats want it back.

CORNISH: That reality TV style approach got a lot of criticism, including from NPR's own political editor Domenico Montanaro and TV critic Eric Deggans. They're back with their thoughts on last night's CNN/New York Times debate in Ohio. And this one kicked off more quietly.


ANDERSON COOPER: And we remind our audience here in the Rike Center at Otterbein to be respectful so the candidates can hear the questions and each other. All right, let's begin. Since the last debate...

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: So, Domenico, this beginning (laughter) being launched basically right into the questions. And it was hard to even know that the debate had started. And then they asked a question that we all kind of knew the answer to, which was about impeachment.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And their answers on impeachment were all kind of the same, so it really fell somewhat flat. And look; the elephant in the room, we all know, was Hunter Biden's role in Ukraine. But, you know, it seemed like the moderators and the candidates really didn't want to have to elevate this conspiracy theory that he did something wrong. So, you know, here's how they kind of went about that.


COOPER: ...You announced that if you're president, no one in your family or associated with you will be involved in any foreign businesses. My question is, if it's not OK for a president's family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it OK for your son when you were vice president?

MONTANARO: Biden, look; he basically said his son didn't do anything wrong. It wasn't that big of a deal, and that really the focus should be on President Trump.


JOE BIDEN: ...Why it's so important to remove this man from office. On the 17th - look; the fact that George Washington worried on the first time he spoke after being elected president that what we had to worry about is foreign interference in our elections. It was the greatest threat to America.

DEGGANS: So when you listen to that answer, and particularly when I saw it in the moment, it was a little disjointed. And I had a...

MONTANARO: Like, you weren't sure where he was going.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And I think that plays into this criticism that we've seen of Biden. These kinds of problems with making himself understood, you know, confuse his message.

MONTANARO: I think the question that Anderson Cooper posed to Joe Biden about Hunter Biden was a pretty good question. But none of the other candidates took it up. And I think that CNN was a little cautious and decided to move on, and that was it. There were over and done with and moved on to the next thing.

DEGGANS: Yeah. You know, one of the criticisms that they'd gotten from the first debates that they conducted was that they were unfairly ginning up conflicts between candidates by asking them leading questions. And so they didn't do that. But then that led to something that you and I have come to call the your response approach.


COOPER: Senator Sanders, your response.

ERIN BURNETT: Secretary Castro, what's your response to Senator Warren's claim that automation is a good story, except it's not really true?

COOPER: I want to give other - I want to give other candidates a chance. Senator Booker, what's your response to Mayor Buttigieg?

MONTANARO: You know, look; Eric, I know the baseball playoffs were on last night. But these might have been the most far out of left field thing that happened last night. I mean, you know, in a debate, you respond to something that involves you. And instead of trying to pick a fight with them, they didn't know what else to do or how to ask a question to more delicately and artfully get them involved and instead just said your response to something kind of random.


COOPER: Senator Warren, your response.

ELIZABETH WARREN: So you started this question...

DEGGANS: So there was even a moment where Biden and Elizabeth Warren clashed. And everyone was talking about it on social media. Domenico, why don't you tell us a little bit about that?

MONTANARO: I mean, Warren was really talking about her role in setting up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And Biden wanted to stress that he helped whip votes to get that agency created.


BIDEN: I agreed with the great job she did. And I went on the floor and got you votes. I got votes for that bill.

MONTANARO: But Warren, you know, her response to this was not exactly thanking Biden.


WARREN: I am deeply grateful to President Obama, who fought so hard to make sure that agency was passed into law. And I am deeply grateful to every single person who fought for it.

MONTANARO: And that exchange was a real Rorschach test. I mean, in social media, you saw some people say that Biden was mansplaining, that he was taking credit for something that a leading woman did. Others thought that Warren was being petty - very much depended on the eye of the beholder, or in this case, the ear of the beholder.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, speaking of the beholders, let's talk about how many people actually watched this. We have a release from CNN saying that 8.3 million people watched...


DEGGANS: ...This debate from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. And almost 400 NPR stations also air audio of it, with an estimated reach of 1.3 million listeners. So that's a much better audience than I expected.


DEGGANS: Well, yeah. You know, given that this is the fourth round of Democratic debates and that the debate started out in a way that was kind of boring, and I expected a lot of people to check out. It's actually a good sign that people are still engaged, and they're still trying to figure out how they feel about a great many of these candidates

CORNISH: That's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans and political editor Domenico Montanaro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.