Bernie acquitted himself well in the second round of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate debates. He may have even won the thing outright. That’s why it’s interesting that his campaign was angry about the questions:
True, this complaint emerged early in the debate, during or after a very long segment devoted to Medicare for All, in which other candidates were invited to criticize Sanders’s bill. But it might have been repeated later as CNN moderators focused on candidate differences on topics ranging from immigration enforcement to trade to nuclear-weapons policy. For the most part, the moderators framed questions around “moderate candidate” objections to the policy proposals of “progressive candidates,” some of which have indeed been raised by Republicans as part of their effort to depict the Democratic Party as having been taken over by what Ayn Rand used to call the “Slave Drivers of Collectivism.”
The “moderates,” desperate for a big moment and probably (as my colleague Jonathan Chait suggests) looking to become a back-up option to Joe Biden if he fades, obliged — some through substantive criticisms and others alluding to their fear of public opinion and Republican attacks. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose views were generally being challenged by moderators and rivals alike, fired back lustily, too, with Warren emulating and sometimes exceeding Bernie’s customary tone of righteous indignation. And Warren echoed Team Sanders’s complaint about how both the moderators and the candidates were framing their questions:
[W]e should stop using Republican talking points in order to talk with each other about how to best provide that health care.
To be clear, this debate was not remotely as nastily divisive as the 2016 Republican debates that were dragged incessantly into the sewer by Donald Trump. Nobody called anyone else a liar or mocked anyone’s genitalia. And on many issues the candidates do agree both generally and in detail, though the consensus was less evident tonight than in the first round of debates. But Gabriel Debenedetti’s prediction that CNN might foster pugilism in this debate based on how they handled the Republicans four years ago seemed prescient:
[I]n the old CNN tape, they found fire and fury — questions designed to pit candidates against each other, touchy political flash points front and center, and no hesitation from the moderators to let the candidates fight it out themselves with little interruption.
Aside from generating sound bites in which less viable moderate candidates made trenchant negative points against the progressive front-runners, the dynamics of the debate promoted the ancient “Democrats in Disarray” meme that is equally beloved among Republicans and mainstream-media folk, the idea being that the Democrats are a perpetually undisciplined gathering riven by ideological furies and interest and constituency-group demands. Arguments over which candidates were or weren’t willing to “fight” for this or that policy goal certainly reinforce the image of a party that’s angry at itself as well as the opposition, its sinister leader, and its corporate backers.
Having said all that, the sharp contrast that drove this debate was undoubtedly useful to viewers who were not familiar with the candidates and their views. And in the end, as Pete Buttigieg tartly observed late in the evening, there’s not much Democrats can do to avoid being smeared by Trump and his Republican and media allies:
It is time to stop worrying about what the Republicans will say.
If it’s true that if we embrace a far-left agenda they’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, you know what they’re going to do? They’re going to say we’re a bunch of crazy socialists.
So let’s just stand up for the right policy, go out there and defend it.
That’s easier said than done, because clearly, Democrats — not just the candidates, but those whose votes they covet — are very worried about “what the Republicans will say” and whether Trump can again slither across the finish line by making his opponent’s weaknesses the central issue. This far from the general election, perhaps the kind of treatment CNN gave the candidates was in fact a good rehearsal for what the nomination winner will eventually face. As of this writing, the president (or his Twitter account) hasn’t reacted to the first Detroit debate. But he will, probably with his signature cruel and sarcastic self-indulgence. And as time goes on and the Democratic field continues to “exhibit its differences,” he’ll enjoy and try to exploit every minute of conflict. And of course, that will continue to make Democrats nervous.