The Democratic debates illustrate the limitations of the modern format: Two 10-candidate matchups over two nights could not accommodate all of the aspirants. Confrontation makes for better TV than dialogue and, thus, the media’s pre-debate hype reminds us of World Wrestling Entertainment. The 60-second bites are inadequate for answers to questions of any complexity. The top-tier candidates get most of the attention. Interruption and emotion are rewarded. The zinger is king.
But I know of no better format. Americans who do not have the patience to read the Mueller report are not likely to evaluate the candidates’ positions by reading policy papers or listening to long, complex Lincoln-Douglas style debates.
Besides, while policy isn’t irrelevant, these days how people look, act and sound on TV is as important. And for evaluating this essential element of modern politics, the television debate serves well.
The downside, of course, is that good candidates — good ones who decline to interrupt, attack, overrun their allotted time or express their positions in overly emotional terms — run the risk of being overlooked by viewers who are fixed on the battle taking place in the center of the stage.
Julian Castro could fall into this category. This would be unfortunate.
During last Wednesday’s debate Castro was asked several questions and was allowed to respond several times to other candidates. But the action was at the center of the stage and the center of your screen, where Harris attacked Biden, Biden attacked Booker, Gabbard attacked Harris, Booker attacked Biden and so on.
Except for a minor swipe taken at him by Biden, Castro wasn’t included in this melee. I suspect that he did not mind being left out. Castro and his campaign are probably content to allow the top-tier candidates to do battle in public. All of them have flaws and vulnerabilities, and nothing exposes those flaws like attacks from fellow candidates.
Should Castro’s standing among the candidates rise, his record and personality will be scoured for vulnerabilities, as well. In the meantime, his credentials are solid. He has administrative and executive experience, first as mayor of the nation’s seventh-largest city and then as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.
In fact, when Castro had a chance to speak during the two Democratic debates, he sounded a little like Obama. He spoke in complete sentences. He was calm, deliberate, thoughtful and articulate. Hints of emotion and passion revealed themselves occasionally just beneath the surface, but they were always under control.
Of course, one question that lingers over the Democratic search for a candidate is, “Who is tough enough to go toe to toe with Donald Trump on the debate stage?” I suspect that none of the current candidates is capable of being as rude, brash, blusterous or outrageous as Trump. And the attempt to match Trump’s style allows him to set the debate ground rules to his advantage.
But standing alongside Trump, Castro may look like a president in ways that Trump cannot approach. Reason may still be able to overcome bluster. I suspect that Castro is articulate enough to be able to explain why “decriminalizing” illegal entry into our country does not equal “open borders,” any more than fire departments, public schools and Medicare equal socialism.
Critics might say that he’s too meek to take on Trump. But in his exchanges with Beto O’Rourke during the first debate and Joe Biden during the second, he showed indications of the sharp elbows that a good politician needs.
Castro spent two and a half years in the Cabinet of one of our nation’s most popular and successful presidents. It was a good place to learn about the presidency. Biden was there longer, but as Castro pointed out: “It looks like one of us has learned from the lessons of the past and one of us hasn’t.”
So, Democrats, as the campaign progresses, don’t overlook Julian Castro. He may not be progressive enough for some in the party, but he may represent the nation’s best chance for what it needs most: a return to normalcy.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.