As a boy, I remember settling down in front of the television with my father to watch the Fight of the Week, a professional boxing match sponsored by Gillette. The program built boxing up as a physical art form, but it fell out of favor on national broadcast television after a boxer died after sustaining injuries in the ring.
My own son was about the same age when we sat down every week to watch radio-controlled mini-robots battle it out—mechanical pugilism, if you will. Hammers, whirling saw blades, flame throwers, bot flipping scoops. It was pretty fun at first, but after you’ve seen a couple of dozen robots on their backs, wheels whirling like a turtle trying to right itself, the concept loses some of its charm.
Those memories came back on Wednesday as I tuned into CNN’s Debate Night to watch U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz debating (sometimes) President Trump’s tax overhaul plan. By selecting senators from the far ideological extremes, CNN guaranteed conflict and gave partisan viewers an opportunity to pull for their favorite.
The show initially appealed to me as a possible preview to the 2020 presidential election. A New Hampshire poll of potential Democratic candidates released the day of the debate showed Sanders leading the field with 31 percent support, with former Vice President Joe Biden coming in second at 24 percent, and Senator Elizabeth Warren third at 13 percent. No one else broke into double digits. On the Republican side, just under half of the likely primary voters said they would vote for Trump if he runs again, 23 percent said they would not, and the rest were uncertain. As the second place finisher of the 2016 Republican nominating process, Cruz clearly has not given up on another run for president if opportunity presents itself.
So pitting Sanders against Cruz on a national issue like taxes, or their earlier debate on the Affordable Care Act, isn’t completely unreasonable. But ultimately, the debate gave the audience a binary choice between cradle-to-grave government and a libertarian world where government is the problem, not the solution.
The debate played out much like a game show, with the live audience cheering and clapping as it began. Sanders and Cruz are entertaining. They know their material and can support their positions with facts and figures, and they treat each other with civility and humor. Probably the harshest exchange of this week’s debate was when Cruz accused Sanders of wanting high taxes, like the ones Denmark has to pay, for national health care:
SANDERS: Did I say that, Ted?
CRUZ: You said if we had this conversation, the American people will be ready to do that. You know what….
SANDERS: No, you’re—stop putting words into my mouth.
CRUZ: That is a debate and quote.
SANDERS: No. What I said is…
CRUZ: Bernie, I didn’t interrupt you.
SANDERS: Yes, you did.
CRUZ: Well, I stopped when you pointed it out.
SANDERS: Don’t interrupt me when I’m interrupting you!
A debate on taxes had drifted off into the health care system of Denmark, and moderators Jake Tapper and Dana Bash allowed it to happen. Why? Because, well, it was entertaining. As Tapper said before one commercial break: “We have to make some money here. Thank you. CNN’s Debate Night returns right after this.”
With the debate format and its participants, CNN furthered the idea that there is no middle. Take the part where the senators faced off on how the tax bill will affect health care in America—Sanders claimed it would eliminate health insurance for 15 million Americans, while Cruz claimed the Affordable Care Act stifles job creation among small businesses, because they can avoid health care mandates if they limit an employee to working 29 hours a week.
What was missing from that exchange was any lengthy discussion of the health care compromise proposed by Senators Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, and Democrat Patty Murray, from Washington. Theirs is a short-term fix that would affect only those people who buy insurance in the health care exchanges. It would provide a two-year extension to insurance companies, payments that Trump halted. Democrats paint the compromise as a way to save health insurance for low-income people, while Republicans cast it as a bailout for insurance companies. The truth is that the ACA requires that insurance companies sell the policies to low-income people, so the offset would be increased rates for those persons not covered by direct subsidies. But the federal government would see an increase cost of $247 billion on the back end because of people taking tax credits. The Alexander-Murray plan quickly ran into political opposition. There were a lot of excuses, but the unspoken reason is that it removes pressure to do anything about the Affordable Care Act for two years.
There was a lot to unpack there. But instead, Sanders and Cruz debated about health care in Denmark, with CNN as the enabler.
Not to just bash CNN—trust in the news media has been in a steady decline, most likely caused by the 24-hour news cycle and exacerbated by the internet. The Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media found trust in national news organizations among Republicans fell from 15 percent in 2016 to 11 percent this year, while it grew among Democrats from 27 percent to 34 percent. As to the media watchdog role, Democrats said the media is doing a good job, but only four in ten Republicans thought so, creating a trust gap of 47 percentage points.
Even more disheartening, a Politico/Morning Consult survey that came out Wednesday found that 46 percent of voters believe the news media fabricates stories about President Trump. Thirty-seven percent said the media does not fabricate stories. Democrats overwhelmingly believe the media, but even one out of every five Democrats surveyed thought stories are created. Among Republicans, 76 percent believe the media invent stories about Trump, and 44 percent of the independents think so.
Perhaps the media is doing a bad job (I don’t think so), or perhaps it is because the image of the news media is created by the binary choice of Sean Hannity versus Rachel Maddow, and an overwhelming desire by those who follow politics to have their opinions affirmed rather than challenged.
Sharp choices are not new in America. U.S. Senator Sam Houston of Texas drew on the Book of Mark to support the Compromise of 1850 preserving slavery in the South by saying, “A nation divided against itself cannot stand.” Just eight years later, Abraham Lincoln evoked the same biblical idea to say the nation either must be all slave or all free: “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” That binary fight resulted in the freeing of the slaves, but has continued to today with debates over social injustice that are playing out over Confederate monuments and NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem. The issue of slavery was settled by the sword, but on issues of economic opportunity and equal justice for African Americans, we remain that house divided.
Often I hear politicians say there is more that unites us than divides us, but rarely does the debate circle those issues. In the meantime, you can look forward to that next CNN Debate Night between Sanders and Cruz. The topic likely will be campaign finance reform. Any guesses on how that will go?