Late in the first night of the second round of the 2020 Democratic debates on Tuesday, CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren a serious question in an unserious way. “Senator Warren, you want to make it U.S. policy that the U.S. will never use a nuclear weapon unless another country uses one first,” Tapper said. “Why should the U.S. tie its own hands with that policy?”
Warren’s response was clear, direct, and morally and strategically sound. “Because it makes the world safer,” she said. “The United States is not going to use nuclear weapons preemptively, and we need to say so to the entire world.”
On an evening when matters of war and U.S. empire were relegated to second-tier status, the subject of Tapper’s question was welcome, even if his framing was not. The only context Tapper gave was that Obama had considered the policy and decided against it — a perfect distillation of the myopia and parochialism of U.S. media. Tapper was positioning Obama as occupying the farthest left position that could still be considered reasonable. Instead, Tapper could have informed his audience that earlier this month China reaffirmed its commitment never to use nuclear weapons first, a position the country has held consistently since it became a nuclear power in 1964.
Nuclear nonproliferation experts reacted in horror at CNN’s framing. “Refusing to rule out using #nuclear weapons first is akin to not ruling out a career as a serial killer,” tweeted Alicia Sanders-Zakre, a board member at the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security. Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, wrote that there are “dozens of barbaric actions we ‘take off the table.’ Genocide. Poison gas. Germ warfare. Slavery. Rape. Mass slaughter of innocents by nuclear weapons should be one of those things.”
The only other candidate who was asked the question was Gov. Steve Bullock, one of a quartet of indistinguishable conservative Democrats with no national coalition, who nonetheless took up considerable stage time at the CNN debate. Bullock’s rambling, incoherent response devolved into a hypothetical scenario where Detroit was obliterated and the United States “wouldn’t do a thing” in response.
The moderators moved on, but by then the dynamic of the entire evening had been defined. The short exchange about nuclear policy perfectly encapsulated CNN’s approach to the debate, and the structural obstacles the two left-most candidates — Senators Warren and Sanders — face in their campaigns.
Throughout the nearly three-hour-long debate, Sanders and Warren were forced to counter bad faith arguments by Bullock, Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan and former Rep. John Delaney. All four of these candidates have failed to garner momentum and supporters through presentations of their pro-corporate, pro-privatization philosophy: They are each polling at under 1 percent nationally.
CNN elevated them virtually to equal standing with Sanders and Warren in a clear attempt to position those four as a collective counterweight to the progressive frontrunners. The moderators were manufacturing an equivalency between Sanders and Warren on the one hand, and what could be called the “can’t do it” crowd on the other. The rest of the candidates slotted in and out of these two sides somewhat haphazardly, often trying to split the difference between big ideas and defeatism. The only notable exception was Marianne Williamson, whose full-throated and unequivocal call for reparations was arguably the rhetorical highlight of the evening.
The first exchange of the night was an extended back and forth between Sanders and Delaney, a multimillionaire who has invested millions in the health care industry and is a vocal opponent of single-payer.
Sanders laid out the scope of the crisis: “87 million uninsured or underinsured … 500,000 Americans every year, going bankrupt because of medical bills, 30,000 people dying while the health care industry makes tens of billions of dollars in profit.”
Delaney responded with a right-wing talking point, calling Democrats who support single-payer a “party of subtraction” — a specious phrase that suggests Sanders and Warren want to take away people’s health care. The former congressman then argued that single-payer would be a disservice to unions that organized and fought for their health plans. This, too, is literally a conservative talking point. Texas Republican Representative Kevin Brady tried to discredit single-payer by warning that “you wake up sick and now you’re worried because that great health plan your union negotiated for you … is gone.”
Time and time again this dynamic repeated throughout the night — Sanders or Warren would offer clear, popular proposals only to face bad-faith critiques from candidates who, in Warren’s words, only “talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.”
To the extent that the Sanders and Warren programs should be critiqued, it isn’t from the right. It should be with an acknowledgement that unless the Democrats retake the Senate in 2020, which is unlikely, and abolish the filibuster (unlikelier still), any of their plans that require congressional approval are dead on arrival. Mitch McConnell will make sure of that.
For all of the very real criticisms against Mayor Pete Buttigieg, he does deserve limited credit for bringing this point up during the debate. He reiterated his calls to end the Electoral College, push for statehood for Washington, D.C., and amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United. Those are all admirable goals, and are considerably better than his preposterous plan to “depoliticize” the Supreme Court by adding five, 1-year-term rotating justices.
Buttigieg is not in the same camp as Warren and Sanders, despite occasionally deploying leftish rhetoric. Neither are any of the other 21 candidates in the race. But Tuesday night was the first time this campaign cycle the public saw Sanders and Warren together, clearly working in tandem if not always unison, and the two presented a powerful look at what an actual left-flank of the Democratic party looks like.
That they were centered, literally and figuratively, and had to be actively countered by CNN’s programming choices, speaks to the power of their collective message. Still, between the conservative posture of both the moderators and several of the other candidates, it’s clear that Sanders and Warren have to fight on multiple fronts simultaneously: against corporate Democrats, dismissive and misleading media coverage, and the industries to which they pose a very real threat.
The moderators and conservative candidates tried to portray this election season as Sanders and Warren against the entire world. That’s true only if you define the world as nothing more than a narrow set of corporate interests, politicians who serve those interests, and a media ecosystem that has no desire to disturb those interests. But as soon as you expand the world beyond that, you can see this fight isn’t Sanders and Warren versus everybody. Their corner has many millions of people in it fighting alongside them.