Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was a CNN-engineered center-right ambush of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that was so ham-fisted in its conception and execution, it could have been drawn up by Donald Trump himself.
“Is Bernie Sanders Too Extreme?” was an actual discussion topic. Zero-polling candidates like Rep. John Delaney and Sen. Amy Klobuchar were encouraged to take swipes at Medicare for All, student debt forgiveness, and other big-box ideas put forth by the two progressive frontrunners.
Many of the questions put forth by CNN were specifically engineered to allow the “moderate” low/no-polling candidates an opportunity to directly attack Warren and Sanders: “Senator Whoever, you once said that Bernie Sanders wants to roll into the future on rails lubricated with newborn kitten blood. Do you stand by that statement?” An exaggeration, but not by much.
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CNN gave Delaney an inordinate amount of time because he was the loudest and pushiest of the anti-progressives clustered on the debate stage. Hoping to make his mark early, Delaney threw Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis in Sanders and Warren’s face with his opening statement. He was aggressively wrong from start to finish, the leader of the back of the pack for one night by dint of volume.
In the end, however, all he and the others did was bait the bear. Sens. Warren and Sanders rose up righteous before every challenge and batted the “moderate” also-rans around the room.
It did not take long for Sanders and Warren to figure out what they were up against. The prevailing “wisdom” among the pundits who populate networks like CNN is that these two will soon have to crawl into Thunderdome together and fight to the death. That was not last night. When Delaney went after Sanders by using right-wing arguments against Medicare for All, Warren came barreling to his defense.
“We are the Democrats,” insisted Warren. “We are not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do, and we should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that healthcare.”
Delaney’s time in the butter churn did not end there. At one point, it was revealed that he is worth $65 million, putting him $15 million within the margin of Warren’s two-cents wealth tax plan. When Warren heard this, she smiled and rubbed her hands together like a chef surveying a fine repast before laying out all the pro-people programs she could fund with a tiny slice of John Delaney’s fortune.
The towering moment of the night also came at Delaney’s expense. After he unspooled yet another ill-reasoned center-right argument, Warren gave it to him with hot mustard. “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 proclaimed. The audience went wild as Delaney grinned sheepishly while blinking his unsettling eyes.
Senator Sanders had his own battles to wage with CNN’s chosen trio of moderators, specifically Jake Tapper. When Tapper tried to frame Sanders’s Medicare for All plan as a giant tax increase, Sanders landed on him with both feet. “Jake, your question is a Republican talking point,” he clapped back. “And by the way, the health care industry will be advertising on this program with that talking point.” Zing.
Sanders was not entirely sharp during the first debate in June, but last night, he gave one of his best performances out of both of his campaigns. After Rep. Tim Ryan, another member of last night’s “moderate” chorus, tried to tell Sanders he didn’t know what was in his own health care bill, Sanders delivered a line that will live on in Bernie lore right next to the bird that landed on his podium in 2016. “I do know it,” Sanders thundered. “I wrote the damn bill!”
“When progressive ideas are cogently aired before millions of viewers,” I wrote last month, “the ‘centrist’ establishment and their ‘moderate’ mainstream media allies will rally furiously to try and convince everyone how terrifying those ideas are.”
This was never more evident than last night. CNN spent the hours before the debate seeding the clouds with anti-progressive arguments that all boiled down to “these lefty ideas can’t win.” During the debate, the moderators allowed the “centrists” to run wild with a blizzard of damaging and discredited conservative myths and proposals.
Over the course of the evening, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and several of his center-right cohorts came out against decriminalizing migration. Sen. Amy Klobuchar bragged about “bringing metro people with me,” which was strange Minnesota code for Black voters. All of them were given many long minutes to try to trash the Green New Deal while paying dusty lip service to the dangers of climate disruption. Ryan praised Trump’s ruinous China tariff policy. Delaney championed the ghastly Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal before offering kind words to Ronald Reagan. Gov. Steve Bullock managed to be smarmy even as he refused to take a first-strike nuclear attack by the U.S. “off the table.”
Yet even with the deck stacked and the utterly atrocious debate format, frontrunners Sanders and Warren showed why they have earned their frontrunner status. CNN has not yet gotten the memo, but the senators from Massachusetts and Vermont clearly see how the failed “centrist” arguments of the past are a losing proposition in 2020.
They are not the only ones who see it. “Candidates who look like they are cautious, modulating, have their foot on the brake are missing the moment,” advises veteran Democratic poll guru Stan Greenberg. “The country is so far away from where it was under Bill Clinton. People are desperate for government to show it can do big things.” Greenberg made his bones in politics by practicing exactly this kind of tepid campaigning in Bill Clinton’s election war rooms. The fact that even he is now making this argument is very worthy of note.
It was a surprisingly clarifying evening. CNN was looking to burn down the campaigns of frontrunners Warren and Sanders with a “Progressives v. Centrists” brawl, and tilted the table in favor of the “centrists” so severely it is a wonder the moderators’ microphones didn’t slide onto the floor. It did not work out the way they hoped.