The stars were mostly aligned for Monday’s “Final Five” presidential campaign special on CNN. Four of the five candidates were scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., anyway, to deliver remarks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, making it easy to set up in-person interviews at the cable channel’s election center studio in the capital.
And the date — previously booked by Fox News Channel for a Republican debate in Salt Lake City — suddenly became available last week when Donald Trump announced he would skip the event, prompting a cancellation. With three Western states holding primaries or caucuses on Tuesday -- and with every scheduled debate in the rearview -- it was only natural to squeeze in one more forum.
But it did feel squeezed. When John Kasich’s leadoff session with Anderson Cooper wrapped up after 20 minutes, I was like, “Wait. That’s it?”
To cram all five candidates into a single evening required strict adherence to time constraints, but the result was a truncated affair that lacked a defining characteristic. Debates are exciting because the format forces candidates who campaign in separate bubbles to go head to head. Some of the town halls have been compelling because of personal, provocative questions from voters in the audience. They’ve also given candidates and moderators more time to let important moments breathe.
The “Final Five” offered none of those qualities. The Donald Trump interview was a re-air of one that CNN broadcast earlier in the evening. Yawn.
A good question from Cooper to Bernie Sanders about the Supreme Court vacancy was just begging for a follow-up or two, but there seemed to be too little time. Cooper asked Sanders to explain why he doesn't believe President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, is progressive enough, then immediately moved on to another topic without raising the Vermont senator's statement last week that, if elected, he would ask the president to withdraw Garland's name so that Sanders to pick someone more liberal.
Isn't it contradictory for Sanders to say, as he has, that the Senate should vote on Garland while also planning to take advantage of Republican stalling by swapping him out for another judge? Cooper didn't get to ask.
Ted Cruz appeared to be trying to run out the clock almost from the moment he sat down with Wolf Blitzer — and he succeeded. As the CNN anchor pressed for specific responses to some of the theories floated by one of his foreign policy advisers, Frank Gaffney, Cruz filibustered with stock answers about President Obama’s reluctance to use the term “radical Islamic terrorism.” Blitzer tried to keep the Texas senator on-point, but the clock was ticking; he had to move on.
With no more primary debates on the schedule, you can bet the cable news channels will attempt to organize alternative candidate forums. That’s a worthwhile endeavor — especially if the Republican nominating contest remains unresolved throughout the spring and there are no more debates, but the “Final Five” format isn’t worth copying.
Future events need more time, more head-to-head action or more questions from voters — more something to make them more interesting and informative than what we saw on CNN on Monday.