It was a stark contrast to other debates swirling around Washington: During a primetime CNN debate Monday night, GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy—the main sponsors of what looks like a failed attempt to replace Obamacare, engaged in a civil debate with liberals Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar.
Not surprisingly, it was Graham and Sanders who stole the show. Both men are seasoned political veterans who evince a certain panache, and it came out last night. It was a throwback to a bygone era where politicians were colorful as Bernie with his Brooklyn accent and eccentric ideas took on Graham with his Southern accent and gift for gab. Even as elbows were thrown (“Bernie is the most honest person in the Senate,” Graham said, “because he believes in government-running health care from cradle to grave”), the two men oozed humor and civility.
My goal here isn’t to score the debate or recount the points scored on healthcare. Others will do that (you can see for yourself, here). This is a column about civil debate. What we saw last night was a throwback to a bygone era. There was a time when pols and pundits could disagree vehemently, fight like hell, and still grab a beer afterwards. Sure, some of that was performance, but performance counts. Today, those kinds of disagreements happens less and less.
Ironically, the fact that this debate was mostly civil probably contributed to the fact that it hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. That’s the sad truth about the way we cover the news today. The “If it bleeds, it leads” mantra that used to be true about coverage of crime and war is now universally true. Civilized disagreements frankly don’t get the same amount of attention as rhetorical bombs. Had Bernie Sanders referred to Graham as a “white supremacist,” you can bet there would be breathless news coverage about it. This incentivizes incendiary rhetoric; media outlets profit from it, and so (often) do the individuals.
The old line about violence in sports used to be, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” Increasingly, you could say the same thing about political debates. That’s why we should be going out of our way to encourage these types of conversations.
It’s important that we encourage them. For CNN (where I’m a political commentator), the event probably lacked some of the buzz that it might have otherwise garnered. The dichotomy was stark: Sanders wants single-payer socialism and Republicans want federalism (essentially, block-grants for states to handle healthcare). But the gods didn’t smile on the timing.
There was a possibility that this debate could have also been timely and decisive: The Graham-Cassidy bill might have been on the cusp of passage, or at least an up-or-down vote, had Sen. John McCain not have let the air out of the balloon by announcing his opposition to the bill. (Hours before the debate, Senator Susan Collins of Maine piled on, announcing her “no” vote.)
What is more, the debate aired opposite Monday Night Football, a game that took on extra importance due to the controversy swirling around Donald Trump’s comments about players refusing to stand for the national anthem.
In an era where Trump and much the media have conspired to incentivize conflict as entertainment, this was a very healthy exercise. We should do more of this.