Almost from the start on Tuesday night, CNN positioned the first of its two Democratic presidential primary debates this week as the progressives versus the moderates. And repeatedly throughout the slugfest in Detroit, both sides seemed more than happy to oblige.
More moderate candidates, such as former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, attacked Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on issues including health care and climate change. The progressive senators responded in kind ― portraying their opponents as fearful of imposing the change necessary to put the country back on track.
“We can’t choose a candidate we don’t believe in just because we’re too scared to do anything else. And we can’t ask other people to vote for a candidate we don’t believe in,” Warren said at one point.
The exchanges provided ample airtime to the moderates ― essentially fringe candidates who acted as the ideological counterweights to Warren and Sanders, with former Vice President Joe Biden on the sidelines until Wednesday night. When they failed, CNN moderators Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper stepped in to help out as well, employing conservative talking points in their questioning of the party’s left-wing contingent.
All in all, it boiled down to 10 powerful people struggling for oxygen while three other powerful people did what they could do to make sense of the chaos.
Sometimes it worked. A lot of the time it didn’t. But here are some takeaways.
The Moderates Attacked Early And Often
Barely registering in the polls and in danger of not qualifying for the third debate in September, moderate backbench candidates, such as Delaney, Bullock, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, had one mission Tuesday: Create a standout moment that could reignite their struggling campaigns. To do so, they attacked the two progressives on stage, Sanders and Warren. Over and over, the moderates bashed their progressive policies, branding them as a surefire way to cost Democrats the general election in 2020.
“You are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” Bullock said to Warren after she affirmed her support for decriminalizing border crossings.
The four moderates who went on the attack against the left wing of the party largely played poor stand-ins for the leading centrist in the race, Biden, who is set to debate against a different field Wednesday night.
But if there was something resembling a winner, it was likely either Bullock or Delaney. Bullock received the third-most speaking time, and Delaney got called back to 11 times by the moderators. Neither one is polling above 1%.
Sanders And Warren Stuck To Their Non-aggression Pact
Considering their virtual tie in national polls, it would have made sense if the progressive senators from the Northeast tried to accentuate their differences on Tuesday night. But Warren and Sanders have had something of an unwritten agreement to not go after each other during the primary campaign. And though there have been occasional signs of them wavering from it, the two of them stuck to the non-aggression pact during the debate.
During one conversation about trade, Sanders said, “Elizabeth is absolutely right. If anybody here thinks that corporate America gives one damn about the average American worker, you’re mistaken.”
Instead, Warren and Sanders teamed up and turned their attacks outward to the moderates.
“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas. Republicans are not afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said at one point.
In what was perhaps her best moment of the night, Warren registered her own displeasure with the moderates after Delaney warned that progressive policies would keep Trump in office in 2020.
“I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for,” she said to loud applause.
The Format Was Bad And So Were The Questions
If there was one thing just about everyone agreed on about Tuesday’s debate, it was that CNN’s question format could use some work. The candidates were allowed 1 minute for initial answers and just 30 seconds for rebuttals ― making for a very choppy and fast-paced debate. Tapper, Bash and Lemon were often unforgiving with the time allotted to the candidates, leading to many clipped and stunted answers.
Many observers noted as much on Twitter.
“This debate format is totally messed up with moderators not even giving candidates one minute to complete a thought. C’mon!” wrote former national security adviser Susan Rice.
“Cutting off candidates in the middle of substantive responses about healthcare, perhaps the issue that most defines the differences among these 20 options, is everything that is wrong with this ‘debate’ format,” added New York Times columnist Binyamin Appelbaum.
CNN’s moderators also came under fire for framing their questions in a way that seemed to set up conflict between the progressive and moderate candidates, often using conservative criticism of Democratic policies. One notable media critic Tuesday evening: Sanders himself.
After Tapper asked if candidates would support middle-class tax hikes to pay for “Medicare for All,” Sanders said, “Jake, your question is a Republican talking point.
“And, by the way, the health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program,” he added. (It did.)
We Got A Lively (And At Times Angry) Health Care Debate
Hard as it might have been to tell above the shouting, the candidates engaged in a conversation about health care for approximately half an hour near the top of the debate ― most specifically, the theoretical pluses and minuses of the Medicare for All plans supported by Sanders and Warren.
At times, the debate was contentious. “You don’t know that,” Ryan told Sanders at one point when the Vermont senator said his signature proposal, Medicare for All, will provide union members with better health coverage.
“I do know that — I wrote the damn bill!” Sanders yelled back.
Sanders took particular aim at Delaney, telling the former congressman that he was “wrong” early on. After Delaney suggested he knew better than anyone else on stage how the “health care business” works, Sanders yelled, “It’s not a business!”
Delaney, at another point, suggested Medicare for All would make Democrats the “party of subtraction” by making half of the country’s health insurance “illegal.”
“Let’s be clear about this,” Warren responded. “We are the Democrats. We are not about trying to take health care away from anyone. That’s what Republicans are trying to do.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, on the issue of universal health care, said that he felt “we’re being offered a false choice” and promoted his plan, Medicare for America, which would not automatically eliminate employer-based insurance.
Climate Change Emerged As A Wedge Issue
After the idea of a Green New Deal was all but ignored during the first set of debates last month in Miami, the topic received a bit more attention in Detroit, emerging as something of a wedge issue an hour and a half in, as HuffPost’s Alexander Kaufman and Chris D’Angelo noted.
Delaney criticized the issue as tied to “things that are completely unrelated to climate, like universal health care and guaranteed jobs.” Hickenlooper called the Green New Deal’s federal job guarantee a “distraction.”
Once again, Warren and Sanders teamed up to defend the idea.
“The Green New Deal is a bold idea,” Sanders said. “We can create millions of good-paying jobs. We can rebuild communities in rural America that have been devastated.”
10 Candidates Proved To Be Too Many Again
After three of these things, I think we can all agree on this one: Hopefully some of these people drop out soon.