The Clinton and Sanders Debates Aren't Much Better than Donald Trump's

Highbrow yes, but they're still misleading.

Senator Marco Rubio talks to businessman Donald Trump at the end of the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate held by CNBC in Boulder, Colorado, on October 28. There are dozens of ways to play along with the two Republican debates, notably debate bingo. Rick Wilking/Reuters

One of the downsides of having Donald Trump dominate the political landscape is the proliferation of debates. The ratings have been so good for presidential debates in both parties that they're now an almost constant presence, and at a certain point, the more you see the less you know.

The Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debates have, of course, been models of civility and erudition compared with the mine's-bigger fest going on in the Republican contest. It's Downton Abbey versus UFC cage fighting. But just because it's more highbrow doesn't necessarily mean it's more enlightening.

On Wednesday night, Sanders and Clinton faced off at the forum sponsored by The Washington Post, Univision and, of course, Facebook—because why would you even bother to assemble without a big social media company? (I still dream of an Etsy Democratic debate and a for the GOP.) The debate was a perfectly fine exchange of views, but just because there were no Trump-like theatrics doesn't mean that it was particularly informative.

Much of the debate revolved around Clinton's charges that Sanders failed to back two important pieces of legislation—the first was a 2007 immigration bill that she favored and Sanders opposed, and the other was a 2009 Wall Street bailout that included monies for the auto industry. The former secretary of state has used the immigration vote to portray Sanders as troglodyte who stood on the wrong side of Ted Kennedy and many Hispanic leaders. She used his failure to support the Wall Street bailout as proof he didn't care about auto workers even though Sanders voted for a free standing bill that would have helped Detroit.

The votes are perfectly fair game, but using them as part of a narrative that suggests Sanders opposes immigration reform or helping carmakers is not only not enlightening but also misleading. It may not have the brawler quality of a GOP debate, but it's really no more illustrative of what the candidate belies or how they might behave in office that shouting "Little Marco."

Conversely, Sanders tried to make Clinton seem cold-hearted when it comes to the young, often parentless Central American children fleeing violence in countries like Honduras. Clinton has spent her entire life working for children, including chairing the Children's Defense Fund. Her efforts as secretary of state to try to quell the violence in the region and her fight to provide much more legal aid to those seeking asylum, are part of that. But the highbrow debate allows candidates to dissemble without seeming like they're crude.

It's not that the Democratic debates have been a waste of time. We've seen Clinton's moderate sensibilities onstage like, um, when she questions whether passing single-payer health care is realistic when it exhausted progressives just to get Obamacare. Sanders's curmudgeonly demeanor and passive-aggressive turns of phrase—you may not think the American people are prepared to stand up to the insurance and drug companies, but I believe they are—gives you a good sense of his worldview.

The information gleaned from debates isn't always intellectual anyway. If you had questions about Sanders age at 74, they seem more than answered by his vigor. If you think Clinton's an awful corporate hack, you've gotten to see a mind at work that's always calculating how to move progressive causes forward in the real world. (This is the difference between coming of political age in the Reagan '80s in Arkansas instead of Vermont.)

But if you've seen three debates, by the 13th you not only have reached the point of diminishing returns but also are watching them as sport—or, as in the case of some of us, because you're getting paid to. It's probably fitting that these things are now opened with a big rendition of the national anthem, something previously reserved for ball games. At a certain point, they ought to sell beer.