Put Your Best Spin on the Ball: J.D. Durkin's Takeaways from the DNC Debates

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

by J.D. Durkin

MIAMI ー Season 4 of "The West Wing" ー Sorkin's last ー portrays Martin Sheen as the president in the throws of a bruising reelection bid. In one key debate scene, the president strikes a too-perfectly-scripted blow, eliciting eruptions from his team of aides, aka our other main characters. Sam Seaborn triumphantly exclaims, "Strike 'em out, throw 'em out!" before turning to reporters: "Anybody want spin?"

A sea of hands and shouts shoot up: access to a key campaign figure and inside source. Gold.

Even if Sorkin's portrayal of the White House press shop is comedically dramatized, his depiction of debate night spin room anxiety is not. In 2019, reporters shout questions indiscriminately into a never-ending chaos, while countless walking-while-tweeting collisions mix with live shot wires, blinding LEDs, and endless body blows fighting to the front of scrums.

While the first Democratic primary debates were (in theory) by the DNC for the American people, they were really by the media for the media. With 20 candidates there, access even for the lesser-knowns ("Spiritual author who?") became a fierce fight at times, all jockeying for a soundbite. For the most part, access to the candidates in the spin room more or less fell in line with this reporter's expectations: the frontrunners got the oven-mitt treatment (limited press availability) while the one-percenters were open and approachable.

Outside of specifically-arranged interviews, reporters were likely out of luck trying to score a question to candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Sen. Kamala Harris; fmr. VP Joe Biden didn't even make a spin room appearance, opting to stay in the debate hall after a performance panned by some as a "disaster."

But for the rest of the pack … anybody want spin? I posed this question to most candidates I came across: what were you not asked about that you really wanted to answer?

Mayor Bill De Blasio and Sen. Michael Bennet pounced on the same theme: "Education. I wish it would come up in these debates," the NYC mayor told me.

The Colorado Senator added enthusiastically, "We went an entire presidential season last year without a single question on education in the debates."

Other night-one candidates expressed a similar frustration: "I thought we were gonna have a deeper dive on climate," Rep. Tim Ryan told Cheddar. Gov. Jay Inslee, naturally, told me, "Climate change in depth. That's what we need."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar added a unique response to the mix… and a familiar one: "I would have liked to be asked about Russian interference, and the opportunity to talk more about climate change." (The Sunrise Movement said they were "disappointed & angry" over the lack of climate coverage Wednesday.)

The business guy, former Rep. John Delaney: "Trade… we got Trump because of our position on trade in my opinion… I would get us back into TPP and I would end these trade wars."

Former Gov. John Hickenlooper: "How healthcare can really change and be a revolution instead of a sudden transformation," on a hot-button issue of the week.

Rep. Eric Swalwell opted to highlight his oversight back in Washington: "More about the work I've done to defend our democracy while it's been on the ropes."

Marianne Williamson told Cheddar, "I want to have a conversation about the military industrial complex. I want to have a conversation about America's war machine. About how we've completely given up our moral values."

Andrew Yang, who spoke the least on the debate stage Thursday, said, "Putting money directly in the hands of families," while Sen. Bernie Sanders gave Cheddar a familiar topic to emphasize, saying, "There's an issue the media doesn't talk about at all, and Congress doesn't really talk about it. And that is: who has the power in America?"

As the flights depart from MIA, the campaigns will huddle, adjust, digest, and adapt all with next month's debate in Detroit firmly locked in mind. They'll all have one goal: landing that perfect viral punch that's almost too-perfectly-scripted, the one that makes their aides erupt in the spin room.

Strike 'em out, throw 'em out.

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