January 22nd, 2008
04:25 PM ET
10 years ago

Blitzer: I disagree with debate critics

A shrinking field gave candidates more time to attack.

A shrinking field gave candidates more time to attack.

MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina (CNN) - The Democratic presidential debate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina has now come and gone. I must say I was pretty surprised: I knew there would be some fireworks, but I didn’t think it would become as rancorous as it did.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama came out swinging, and it was intense. They clearly had their zingers ready to go, and they let loose. It didn’t really matter what our questions were - whether on jobs, the economy, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, or health care - they were intent on hammering their rivals for the Democratic nomination.

This was the fourth presidential debate I have moderated during this election season. I hosted a Republican and Democratic debate back in June in New Hampshire, and a Democratic debate in November in Las Vegas. All three were much more subdued.

The shrinking field may be partly responsible for the new combative tone. When there are eight candidates fighting for time, it's tough for the candidates to go after each other. It's a lot easier when there are only three of them left standing.

Another factor: as the contest gets into the final rounds, the stakes become ever higher.

I made a deliberate decision last night to try to speak as little as possible. This was a debate, and I wanted the candidates to debate the issues, and let them go back and forth - much easier to do now that there are just three candidates left, as opposed to nearly three times as many.

During those early debates, some criticized me for interfering too much - either by interrupting the candidates and forcing them to wrap up their thoughts, or by moving on to the next question too quickly. “Why didn’t you just let them debate?” some of my critics asked. Following this most recent debate, some of my critics complained that I didn’t adequately control the two-hour session.

I certainly understand both criticisms. But I don’t agree with them.

As riveting as the back-and-forth might be, it wasn't the point of the event: I hope the people watching Monday night came away from this debate in South Carolina with a better understanding where the candidates stand on key issues.

–CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer

Filed under: Wolf Blitzer
soundoff (492 Responses)
  1. Charlie

    It is amazing that you do not have Bill Clinton falling asleep behind Martin Luther King III...on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day!!! Some of my friends make fun of me for taking the "Clinton News Network" serioulsy...I am starting to understand their point.

    I remember when Bush looked at his watch during a debate with Clinton in '92. I was amazed that he could be so "out of touch" in a Presidential Debate. Obviously, you CNN was amazed also...as evidenced by your coverage.

    What is the difference here? This is why you guys continue to lose credibility. If you can't cover it...then at least be honest about why you won't cover it.

    First Black President falling asleep in a Black Church during a Sermon by the Son of one of the most influential Black Americans, of the 20th Century...and you have nothing to say?

    Ignorance? Incompetance? Apathy? or Calculating?

    January 22, 2008 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  2. Sean

    I have been an Obama supporter through this campaign- to this point. However, after last night, a feeling that's been slowly growing in me over the last few weeks became very clear: Obama has very little to say. It took me a while to notice, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that, of the 3 candidates, he is the least specific, the least idealistic, and the least capable of just giving a straight answer. It's funny (not really) how it seems like the people who really delve into the heart of issues and seem to have very specific plans, solutions, and ways to pay for them (biden, dodd, and now edwards), get the least face time and move to the back of the pack. It seems to me that America really loves candidtaes who just spout rhetoric and fight with each other. Sad.

    January 22, 2008 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  3. Thank you


    I am so happy to have someone with your integrity in the process. I think you did well. I did not like that Obama kept on interrupting and intimidating the mediator to let him answer questions in triple the time he was allotted, but the other candidates held their own.

    I am happy.

    January 22, 2008 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  4. Kris

    " ...there are only three of them left standing."

    Huh, that's funny. Last time I checked, Dennis Kucinich was still running. Not that you would ever know that from the corporate media's manipulative coverage of this campaign.

    January 22, 2008 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  5. aichain

    The debate format encouraged the type of unproductive exchanges we saw among the candidates. Allowing audience applause fosters a feeling of mob mentality and encourages candidates to spew out tired one-liners in an effort to get the mob on their side. The lack of time limits and moderator control also has a negative effect in that it favors the person who will shout over the others loudest and interrupt them. Also, how many times have we heard the race/gender issue be brought up in this debate as well as previous debates? Every single time you hear Obama and Clinton both agree that they have no doubt that all the Democratic candidates supports civil rights and equality. Every time you hear them agree that they don't want people to elect them based on their gender/race, but rather on their policy stances. So why are we still hearing these kinds of questions being asked at the debates?

    This debate is a small example of the larger problem of media coverage of this election. The media is turning the election into a reality TV show. The media is reporting not on the issues and policy positions, but rather on the bickering that occurs, and on the potential drama among the candidates. I was reading CNN's political ticker during the debate and was amazed to find substantially more posts from Bill Schneider about the dynamics of the debate – the interactions among the candidates and the aggressive emotions in the room etc – than I could find about the actual policy positions that the candidates were trying to get across.

    CNN, the president should be elected based on his/her positions on the issues, but the way you (and other major media companies) cover this election, the majority of the public is going to end up choosing a candidate based on how they make them "feel", or how "likable" they are. Since you love reporting on polls so much, how about you conduct a poll to see how much voters actually know about the candidates' policy positions. Ask them which of the 3 democratic candidates does not support a mandatory universal healthcare program. Then ask them which of the 3 candidates got a little emotional and teary-eyed at a campaign stop in NH. I'd bet you more people know that Clinton was the one who got a little emotional than that Obama is the one that doesn't support mandatory health insurance. Or how about on the republican side – ask voters if they even know which republican candidate supports dissolving the IRS and abolishing the income tax.

    CNN, you and the rest of the media have a responsibility to report on what is important – a responsibility to give the voters the information they need to make an intelligent decision in the primaries and in November. Your emphasis on "sensational" news reporting and turning this election into a reality TV show in order to attract viewers is very troubling.

    January 22, 2008 04:34 pm at 4:34 pm |
  6. Dreema

    Hi Wolf! I actually attended last night's debate and I think you, and the entire CNN crew, did a great job. The back and forth was interesting and I thought the audience enjoyed the intensity of the exchanges.
    I hope you enjoyed your stay in South Carolina and we look forward to having you here again soon!

    January 22, 2008 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  7. TIME

    Did anyone notice that TIME gave Obama an A-?

    His campaign and message have been positive UNTIL the Clintons start attacking him on petty issues. He has a right to defend himself against the Clinton machine.

    Look for a landslide in SC

    January 22, 2008 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  8. J. Davis

    I definelty enjoyed the debate last night. It was interesting to see the way that Hillary can stand her ground with the 'guys'. I so enjoy the CNN network coverage of this election process. All of your commentators try to be bi-partisan or so it seems to me. You do not take sound bites and spin them the way MSNBC does. I feel that I get a true picture of each candidate with no bias spin or outright lies. I have great respect for all of your newspeople! Thank you so much!

    January 22, 2008 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  9. Stacey

    Wolf let Hillary ramble on the most, then Obama. He tried to cut off Edwards after a minute. Talk about unfair. It was sad to watch. The only one who was a grown-up last night was Edwards.

    January 22, 2008 04:35 pm at 4:35 pm |
  10. Johnny J

    First off, Clinton is a snake and I wouldn't trust her or her husband with a dollar bill. As for the debate, it had no substance no one, especially Wolf called Hillary to the carpet regarding her, I will do this and I will do that speach. Anyone can stand up and make promises without having to spell out how they are going to achieve them. Personally, i don't want to live in a socialistic society or have the government control anything I have. Hillary, get your hands off.........How is she expectecing to pay for all that she promises and what has she ever done on her own......This question needs to be asked.........Nothing.

    January 22, 2008 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  11. This Commentor's words take the words right out of my mouth

    "Obama also betrayed a very controlling and arrogant attitude. No unity candidate in Obama."

    right on the money.

    January 22, 2008 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  12. Golfer Gary

    I was keenly disappointed in the lopsided time allocation provided to Barack Obama. John Edwards in particular was given an exceptionally limited amount of time; and, Hillary Clinton did not receive parity with Senator Obama.

    I have been an avid viewer of CNN for over 10 years, yet recently I find myself viewing MSNBC more because of the Obama spin on CNN. I believe that CNN should be forced to end most of their political segments with, "My name is Barack Obama and I approve this message."

    Our nation is confronted with so many deep ills in part due to the irresponsible and subjective media coverage of virtually every aspect of news.

    Deeply Saddened,

    Golfer Gary

    January 22, 2008 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  13. Roy

    Congratulations on your job last night. However I do feel very sad that the Democratics on H Clinton side still have race issues. They need to mature and get over with the race issue. This just showns how affraid they are.....the damage was done and will be very dificult to vote for someone with "womens and race problems". Obahama is doing a great job and deserves more credit. As we can see is being very polite when awnsering back to Clinton.....we cannot say the same about H Clinton.

    January 22, 2008 04:36 pm at 4:36 pm |
  14. Michael from Hawaii

    Great job last night, i just wante to say that Obama needs to stop living in this dream that world peace and togetherness will come one we all hold hands and read Chicken Soup for the Soul or one of Oprah's book club books. Russia dose not hold hands. He aslo needs to stop with this Southern accent he has just decided to aquire recently. He is from Hawaii, not Alabama. Obama needs to stop attacking Clinton on her record because his record show a whole lot of nothing, because he has done nothing but talk about change but do nothing to act on it. He is not JFK or MLK, and never will be. And should he become President, which im sure he will, because Americans dont have the greates track record for electing "winners," i.e. Bush JR, "Oh Canada" i will sing.

    January 22, 2008 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  15. Stephanie Orchard

    Last night's Democratic debate in South Carolina was the first political debate I've seen that was a true debate. The tactics by the candidates were appropriate and civilized. I learned a lot about the Democrats' stand and didn't have to hear about the Republicans' stand (that's what the Republicans' debates are for although they don't seem to know this).
    Thanks. Now I have to go to the Public library and then drive on a Public road to pick up my child at Public school where they had the Public nurse in to give the kids Public vaccinations then go to the Public park for soccer practice and then we will go home to listen to Public broadcasting. But I don't want Public Health Care-that would be SOCIALISM !!

    January 22, 2008 04:37 pm at 4:37 pm |
  16. Jerry R., Sacramento, CA

    I thought that Wolf and CNN did a horrible job last night. Wolf (and the others) kept trying to make the debate about race and gender. Leave it alone! We get it: one candidate is a woman and one is an african-american. Fine. Now what do the candidates stand for.

    January 22, 2008 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  17. Mindy Chatsworth, California


    I don't usually have reason to give kudos, but your moderation of last night's debate was quite good. I think you were right to let Hillary and Obama go at it. I didn't like it and thought they both came off looking rather petty, but the simple fact is that they were going to do one way or another. No matter what question you asked, they had their little talking points ready. This has been building for quite some time now and the only thing you can do is to let them have at it.

    In between all of the bickering and charges and countercharges, occasionally we got some real information about the different healthcare plans, the strategy to exit Iraq and foreign policy. Some of it was a good, spirited back and forth about ideas. It did get ugly at times. I don't think it will serve either Hillary or Obama to get nasty, but it doesn't appear that they are going to quit any time soon.

    At one point I found myself yelling at you to just let 'em go at it. And you did. Good decision. There were times when you stayed in the background and times when you tried to regain control. I don't think you can have a blueprint for a debate. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and make decisions in the moment. That's what you did and I commend you for it. It's not easy to try to control three determined egos all trying to get the most time to talk.

    I do think that Barack Obama is getting a free ride from the media and I don't like it. He proved that he can be just as mean-spirited as both of the Clintons. So he doesn't get any brownie points from me. He doesn't seem to like having his record or positions questioned and that's not a good trait in a presidential candidate. It's fair game to make him accountable. Unfortunately, it descended into name calling and petulant rants. But I think Hillary and Bill are fed up with Obama not getting called out by the news media. Joe Johns did try to put Obama to the test, but it wasn't enough.

    If you want to do the voters a favor, hold ALL the candidates to the fire and make them answer the really difficult questions. That's the only way we will be able to make the right decision.

    January 22, 2008 04:41 pm at 4:41 pm |
  18. steve

    CNN did a better job than the other networks with their gotcha questions. But then, the bar was set pretty low.

    January 22, 2008 04:42 pm at 4:42 pm |
  19. nab

    Hillary was the best and accurate and precise. it was Obama who started the brawl and he got good punches what he needed. People need to know this guy. He tries to show as if he is so clean in politics. He has no substance but just rhetoric. He is playing a racial card ....I donot think anybody else doing that. He looked pretty immature to me yesterday.GO for HILLARY..she will defeat the old rotten Republican machine. HILLAAAARY 2008.

    Wolf , you were great.

    January 22, 2008 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  20. Kaye Gleason

    I felt last night's debate should have been called: "Let Obama Talk as Long as He Wants." I'm sorry that Mr. Blitzer continually favors Obama and Clinton in the televised debates. I think John Edwards is my favorite even though I feel any of the Democratic candidates would be a great improvement over what we have now. Thank you.

    January 22, 2008 04:50 pm at 4:50 pm |
  21. Ivanhoe

    The back and forth between Clinton and Obama solidified for me for whom I will cast my vote in the forthcoming Democratic primary in my state: John Edwards.

    As for Mr. Blitzer's anchoring of the debate, I thought he struck a fine balance between letting the candidates have their say and interrupting when it came time to interject another question. Good job, and thank you.


    January 22, 2008 04:51 pm at 4:51 pm |
  22. Sarah

    The debate was how it should be last night, less interaction by the media. Only problem is that like CNN and other regular news broadcast channels, Edwards was not given fair time even close to that of Obama and Clinton. He did do his best to stand up for himself to fight for time and not wait for it from you.

    I am a long time Edwards supporter, for I am born and raised in NC and thought he did a great job in his time spent here as Senator. But seeing him last night just made me more angry at the lack of media coverage he has been given. I would really like to know why. I hope its not because he is a white male..... CNN is certainly exploiting Obama and the black candidate and Clinton as the women, so now white men dont exist. Why not just let everyone be heard equally so the public, the people, can make a fair decisions for themselves.

    January 22, 2008 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  23. Cate Gray

    Wolf, in my opinion, last evening's debate was a total success. I was riveted! The first ones were painful to watch and little was learned about each candidate. I realize having only 3 is a large factor but the format was great and allowed each to reveal parts of their character I had not seen before.

    January 22, 2008 04:54 pm at 4:54 pm |
  24. Stewart - Los Angeles

    Wolf Blitzer, as usual, handled the debate with dignity, professionalism and order.
    I commend him for moderating such an intense and passionate discussion with an impartial and unbiased stance.
    Keep up the great work Wolf!

    January 22, 2008 04:55 pm at 4:55 pm |
  25. Joan E. Harman

    I watched Senator Clinton today lashing out at Obama for what he said to her last night. He was looking for a fight, so was she. Obama is clearly desperate, so is she.

    And yeah, I haven't seen Ms. Clinton campaigning at anytime without Bill by her side. Obama doesn't look to his wife to make himself or his polls better. Ms. Clinton has guaranteed that THIS woman won't be voting for her. If Ms. Clinton truly wants to be president she should show the cajones necessary to stand alone, without hubby, and win the job in her own right.

    January 22, 2008 04:57 pm at 4:57 pm |
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