One of the challenges of hosting a debate with 12 candidates is that it takes about a century to get through a single question. And a lot of people watching last night’s Democratic debate were not impressed that CNN and the New York Times chose to spend the last 30 minutes of the three-hour debate on a question about Ellen DeGeneres.
Inspired by the recent controversy surrounding the comedian, who was photographed looking chummy with George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game, host Anderson Cooper asked the candidates to tell voters about a surprising friendship of their own. The prompt was obviously a softball for them to talk about bipartisanship, pegged to a buzzy tabloid story. But while a message of kindness and tolerance is potent in these politically divided times, the question left candidates grasping for stories that felt tokenistic.
Andrew Yang took a ride with a Trump-supporting trucker named Fred and convinced him to join his campaign. Businessman Tom Steyer namechecked a Black, female environmental activist from South Carolina. Kamala Harris talked about working with Rand Paul on a bail reform bill. Three candidates named John McCain as their pal with ideological differences.
Julián Castro was the first nominee to respond. He gave a vague answer about valuing diverse friendships and said he thinks leaders like Bush should be held accountable for their policies. After the debate, Castro told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that the failure to ask more substantial questions amounted to “journalistic malpractice.” He said he’d hoped to talk about affordable housing, immigration, and climate change. "But we talked about Ellen at the end," Castro said. "I know what the point of the question was, but we keep leaving some of these huge issues that impact families off of the question agenda of these debates."
Viewers weren’t impressed with Cooper’s line of questioning, either. “Talking about Ellen DeGeneres’ social life is not how you end a debate in the most crucial election of our lifetimes, CNN,” writer Catherynne Valente tweeted. Pod Save America posted, “Ten points to Gryffindor if you can [...] pivot this question about Ellen being friends with George W. Bush into an answer about climate change, a topic that has not been raised yet in this debate.”
The Ellen question was a misstep, but it’s symptomatic of bigger tangles the Democrats need to work out if they hope to win the presidency in 2020. Voters feel overwhelmed by the numerous issues at stake; climate change, gun violence, and a president flouting impeachment proceedings all represent existential threats to the nation, for example. Kindness should be at the core of our next president’s modus operandi, sure. But don’t patronize American voters with forced, performative declarations of star-crossed friendship. It stinks of insincerity.