Hey, did you know there's going to be a CNN debate tonight between all the Democratic candidates running for president? If not, don't be too angry at yourself. The two Republican debates that have already happened were preceded by a heavy amount of lip-licking media coverage, as journalists and pundits alike anticipated the fireworks that would come from candidates on an overcrowded stage saying outrageous things in an effort to peel a little camera time away from Donald Trump.
In contrast, most of the media coverage of the Democratic debate has been perfunctory, as if issuing reminders to eat your vegetables. While denying it's a "strike against Democrats" to say so, Brian Beutler of the New Republic writes, "It isn’t wrong or biased to say that Democrats make comparatively boring television.
Philip Rucker of the Washington Post fears that viewers will be "bored senseless" by all the grown-up policy talk, compared to the "rip-roaring show Republicans have put on". And even Donald Trump has gotten in on the show, accepting the narrative that the entertainment value of the debate is the most important part of it.
Donald Trump: People are going to "fall asleep" watching the Democratic debate pic.twitter.com/veCtSt76Yf
— FOX & Friends (@foxandfriends) October 13, 2015
Reading this, one has to wonder if all these folks just forgot what the last Republican debate was like. There were a couple of memorable moments, like Mike Huckabee being unable to name any women of importance that are not his wife or Carly Fiorina lying vividly about Planned Parenthood, but the truth is that debate was long and boring for most of it. This time around, viewers will at least be spared the tedium of one roll call after another where 10 candidates all make the same argument: Iran is evil, birth control funding is evil, Ronald Reagan was a god among men. Just by having only five people, the Democrats already have a leg up when it comes to entertainment value.
That's not the only reason to believe that the Democratic debate tonight is going to be more fun to watch than the last Republican debate, and it's not because Hillary Clinton is going to rip her face off to reveal the robot that the mainstream press clearly believes lurks under her grandmotherly exterior.
For one thing, there are actual, measurable differences between the candidates on the issues. For all the jibes tossed around between Republicans---okay, coming from Donald Trump---there's actually very little substantive disagreement on the issues between them. The tension all came from carefully staged, personalized conflict over who said what about whose face or whose wife. In contrast, the Democratic debate might break into actual, non-staged conflict as real arguments about real issues break out. Hillary Clinton could confront Bernie Sanders about his vote for federal laws shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuit. Sanders, in turn, could accuse Clinton of being too cozy with Wall Street. There's potential here to get past the empty posturing that defined the Republican debate and start getting real about the issues.
Then there's the novelty factor. As lengthy as the Republican debates were, they didn't teach us anything new about the candidates, who are all lockstep conservative ideologues. (Though Rand Paul periodically makes an empty gesture in the direction of civil liberties.) But there's a lot about the Democratic candidates that most voters don't know, including the fact that Martin O'Malley is not, in fact, played by Aiden Gillen.
For instance, a lot of Democratic voters continue to labor under the impression that Clinton is less progressive on economic issues than she actually is. Tonight, she may have a chance to disabuse viewers of that notion, highlighting her progressive policy ideas on Wall Street reform and her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Likewise, Sanders has struggled to communicate his ideas about racial justice, leading to low polling numbers amongst African-American voters. He might have a real chance tonight to rectify that, showing that he's actually a lot smarter on these issues than many voters know.
Not that everything dramatic about the debate is going to be about policy and ideas. Even though there's no Trump around to call women "pigs" and make fun of their looks, there's a substantial chance that sexism is going to be an issue in a debate where a woman is beating her four male opponents in the polls. Not that there's any reason to expect that another candidate will take a sexist swipe at Clinton. The are all smarter than that, no doubt. But there's certainly a double standard in media coverage around Clinton, where she gets more questions about her family, her age, and her personality than her male colleagues do. Should any of that leak out in the debate, say by having the moderators ask Clinton about "likeability" while ignoring that factor for the men, there will be a whole lot of chatter about it. Maybe not on the level of Donald Trump making period jokes about Megyn Kelly, but it will definitely not be boring.
But what really has a chance to make all this fascinating viewing is that the debate has a chance to be a defining moment for progressivism. More Democrats identify now as "liberal" than in the past, but it's often not entirely clear what that term means, especially compared to the more concretely defined reactionary views of the self-identified "conservatives". The candidates all have very good reason to cozy up to liberals, but there's no standard way to do that. Is it more liberal to believe, as Bernie Sanders does, that college should be free to anyone who wants it? Or is it more progressive to agree with Clinton that taxpayers shouldn't foot the bill so that the children of the wealthy can go to college for free? Should liberal economics be more concerned with Wall Street reform, or should the priority be more on shoring up the social safety net? Should social spending be focused more middle class benefits or anti-poverty spending?
These continue to be open questions for which there is no widespread agreement amongst self-identified liberals and progressives. These are also the issues that have a strong chance of being hotly debated tonight. That's bound to be more interesting than another round of watching Republicans agree with each other for three hours in the slim hope that Donald Trump will slip up and call Carly Fiorina the B-word.