As a “not ready for prime time” moment, this one ranked right up there.
Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow had barely taken their places for Hour Two of the first Democratic debate when things went horribly wrong.
The wrong mics were on, strange voices seemed to pipe in from the great beyond, and a hugely important question about gun violence was repeated, to no avail, as the whole tableau of candidates onstage looked confused.
Todd called for a commercial break, and you could imagine remote controls around the country being picked up and livestreams being abandoned throughout the land.
But soon the glitch was resolved, the question was asked a third time, and it was back to the real chaos, not the technical kind.
With 10 candidates onstage and five moderators in two shifts, the debate offered way too much — and yet, somehow, not enough.
There was way too much of the candidates shouting over each other. Way too many unfamiliar faces who — because of the network’s failure to identify them repeatedly as they spoke — remained unfamiliar.
At times, the whole thing felt like a nightmare version of speed dating.
Yet, paradoxically, there was also not enough.
Not enough time for candidates to do much real explaining or offer more than prepared sound bites.
Not enough time — apparently — for talking about the main problem on Democratic voter’s minds: President Trump. Or a long list of other crucial issues from China to NAFTA.
But mostly, the problem was the lack of depth resulting from the format. There were simply too many people. And all with the knowledge that another 10 candidates are on deck for Thursday night’s debate — though it will feature more of the heavy hitters.
The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser described, in a tweet, an overheard comment: “Donald Trump is president and we’ve got Tim Ryan debating Tulsi Gabbard on Afghanistan on national TV.”
It just didn’t work.
Trump, of course, was tweeting his one-word commentary: “BORING.” And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina was performing the role of chief sycophant by saying that was an insult to boring people.
How could a debate that took on such major issues as climate change, health care, immigration and possible war with Iran be legitimately described that way?
Because, while there was passion and conviction — and certainly plenty of ideas — there was no chance of depth. Everything was glancing. Almost pointlessly so.
Todd’s directive to the candidates to express the greatest threat to the country in one word was a particular triumph of shallowness.
In general, though, the moderation was competent. Todd kept things moving and managed the glitch with a certain amount of grace, but he talked way too much. In fairness, Todd talked so much partly because he had to repeat that question three times and explain the glitch. According to a tally by FiveThirtyEight, he talked more than almost all the candidates, coming in fourth in word count behind Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, in that order.
For all the concerns about whether Rachel Maddow was too political to be included, she brought a level of relaxation and knowledge that leavened the chaos just a bit.
Savannah Guthrie came out strong, pushing effectively for real answers — as when she insisted that former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas answer a specific question about raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
José Díaz-Balart’s most effective moment was when he passionately talked about the tragic deaths of a Salvadoran migrant father and child.
And Lester Holt lived up to his reputation as the “minimalist moderator.” He did his job without fireworks, or anything memorable — which is not a complaint.
The problem, really, was the format and the sheer numbers.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez took some knocks a few months ago when the party raised the bar on who would get to come on the presidential debate stage.
The rules would keep out too many worthy people, according to the complaints.
Perez said he merely wanted a structure where everyone gets “a fair shake to communicate their vision to the American people.”
Maybe this result is the best that could be done, given that reasonable aim. Maybe, by Thursday night, NBC will get its technological problems solved. And maybe night two — with its broader array of big names — will be more successful, more stimulating, and plain old better TV.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan