The fusion of entertainment with politics continued apace with CNN orchestrating the Democratic primary debates as a professional-wrestling donnybrook, a battle between the progressive wing of the party (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) against the moderates (Steve Bullock, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, John Hickenlooper, and John Delaney).
Led by Jake Tapper, the CNN hosts consistently tried to get the two factions to attack each other, while bizarrely elevating Delaney for much of the debate. By the end of the night, Delaney spoke less than five other candidates, but there were points when it seemed Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon were more eager to hear from Delaney than from anyone else.
One reason Delaney got such prominence is that he was the candidate most willing to challenge Sanders and Warren. Although Klobuchar shares Delaney’s moderate stance, she was much more circumspect—possibly because, unlike Delaney, she is still hoping to be a vice presidential candidate on an eventual Democratic ticket. For her, it made little sense to attack front-runners who might one day make her a running mate. Precisely because he’s a much more marginal figure, Delaney was more willing to deride policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.
The moderating strategy of the CNN hosts could be summed up by the immortal words of Popeye’s pal the hamburger-loving Wimpy, who loved to say, “Let’s you and him fight.” The problem for CNN was that the moderates were overmatched by the progressives. Sanders and Warren are Democratic Party stars, and their message about the necessity for major structural change resonated with the audience. Moderates like Delaney, meanwhile, are barely registering in the polls, and their position is unlikely to improve after the debates, where they served as effective punching bags.
The root flaw of the debate was that because of the luck of the draw, Sanders and Warren weren’t set against the only two moderates who are in their league: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. This led CNN to elevate Delaney as a kind of substitute Biden, someone who could articulate the policies that Biden would have offered were he on the debate stage.
Warren proved to be a skilled dunker when she went after Delaney by saying, “I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the US just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for.” That line cut to the core issue: The moderates were defined by what they opposed rather than what they supported. They had only a negative ideology of nay-saying and premature surrender. It’s hard to imagine this worldview inspiring many voters.
Sanders benefited from his characteristic brusqueness, which let him challenge both the moderators (calling out Tapper for asking questions that were basically “Republican talking point[s]”) and moderates (contesting Ryan’s characterization of Medicare for All, Sanders snapped, “I wrote the damn bill”).
Aside from the battle between the progressives and the moderates, the other star of the evening was Marianne Williamson, who emerged as a powerful speaker who can cut to core issues in a manner that calls to mind Donald Trump himself. At one point she said, “If you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic force of the collectivized hatred that the president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.”
While one can dispute whether Williamson’s self-help ideology is the answer to Trumpism, she’s right that the racism Trump is conjuring up needs to be challenged on a level that goes beyond policy and tackles the social and psychological roots of bigotry. Her words helped explain why Warren and Sanders were so effective: The two progressive candidates didn’t simply speak about policies but also stressed their values and emphasized the need for mass movements to push those values forward.
All in all, the debate evoked the reverse of the famous lines from W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming”; this time, the best were full of passionate intensity, while the worst lacked all conviction. The centrists did not hold.