By Howard Kurtz
Published November 22, 2019
After a nearly 11-hour hearing on impeaching President Trump, MSNBC and the Washington Post hosted a Democratic debate where the leadoff topic was…impeaching President Trump.
Rachel Maddow, the network’s top liberal voice and lead moderator, kicked off the Atlanta debate Wednesday by noting that Elizabeth Warren is ready to convict the president: “Will you try to convince your Republican colleagues in the Senate to vote the same way? And if so, how?”
Then she asked Amy Klobuchar about having said she’d wait for the evidence: “After the bombshell testimony of Ambassador Sondland today, has that view changed for you?”
Next, Maddow asked Bernie Sanders: “How central should the president's conduct uncovered by this impeachment inquiry be to any Democratic nominee's campaign for president? How central would it be to yours?” And she put the same question to Pete Buttigieg.
And that’s pretty much how the evening went. No wonder the New York Times called it “the debate that wasn’t.”
There were few sparks. Most of the questions were polite, a chance for the 10 contenders to deliver their stump speeches. They said they were for daycare and voting rights and against climate change.
Maybe that’s why it was the lowest-rated debate of the season, seen by 6.5 million viewers—down from 8.5 million for the CNN debate last month.
The two reporters on the panel, MSNBC’s Kristen Welker and the Post’s Ashley Parker, asked some more aggressive questions. But the candidates, with little prodding, also showed little desire to mix it up. What passed for drama was Cory Booker professing shock that Joe Biden wouldn’t support legalizing marijuana. And all the pundit predictions about how Buttigieg would get beat up now that he’s the front-runner in Iowa proved to be wrong.
Andrea Mitchell did note that Mayor Pete won an election in South Bend with 11,000 votes, asking: “Why should Democrats take the risk of betting on you?”
“Because I have the right experience to take on Donald Trump,” he said. That was as rough as it got.
It was all very high road. Warren wasn’t really pressed on her latest explanation for her $20-trillion Medicare for All plan. No one really “won.”
Afterward, things seemed rather clubby. Chris Matthews told Booker during an interview that he did “great” and was inspiring.
And Maddow told Brian Williams: “I felt sitting here like, you know, these 10 candidates are getting a chance to put their best foot forward and make their best cases.” Is that a network’s goal in hosting a presidential debate?
But even if the debate had produced conflict or fireworks, it would have been largely forgotten 10 hours later, when the impeachment hearings resumed. The anchor of MSNBC’s coverage Thursday: Anti-Trump host Nicolle Wallace, who has led or co-anchored every day of the hearings. Matthews anchored one day last week.
Wallace called Fiona Hill’s appearance “some of the most searing testimony” and said it “packed a wallop.” A day earlier, she declared: “I think Gordon Sondland’s testimony changed everything.”
If MSNBC has had a token conservative guest during these hearings, I’ve missed it. And as I keep pointing out, the impeachment coverage on CNN and Fox has consistently been anchored by journalists.
But the Democratic debate was always destined to be overshadowed. Impeachment is consuming all the media oxygen. The debate was barely mentioned all day Wednesday on MSNBC itself until a half hour before it began. And it’s already becoming a footnote.
Obama White House aide David Axelrod tweeted during the Atlanta event, “It may just be me, but maybe the impeachment hearings have left me sapped for this debate. Kind of low energy.”
It wasn’t just you, David.