Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the front-running and most progressive candidates onstage on Night 1 of CNN’s Democratic debates, had more than enough passion, energy and conviction to withstand repeated challenges from a field of lower-polling and more moderate opponents Tuesday night. And in a medium where almost nothing plays better than energy and passion, that means they both had a good night.
As for the debate itself, it did not have a made-for-TV, game-changing, personality-focused moment like the one in an earlier MSNBC debate that saw Senator Kamala Harris going after former Vice President Joe Biden for his record on school busing in the 1970s. And that means it made for less compelling viewing.
But that’s an entertainment value, not a political or civic one. In political terms, the debate provided viewers with a clear look at differences in the party between progressives like Sanders and Warren, and more moderate candidates like Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney.
Videos courtesy of CNN
Delaney, a former CEO of the New York Stock Exchange, made his presence felt Tuesday night far more successfully than he did in the MSNBC debate. But, in the end, I am not sure that will prove to be a good thing for him, given the way Warren managed to make him a foil.
Delaney came after the two front-runners in his opening statement, saying: “Folks, we have a choice. We can go down the road that Senator Sanders and Senator Warren want to take us, which is with bad policies like Medicare for all, free everything and impossible promises that will turn off independent voters and get Trump reelected.”
After citing Democratic presidential candidates of the past like George McGovern and Michael Dukakis who were badly beaten in general elections, he continued: "Or we can nominate someone with new ideas to create universal health care for every American with choice, someone who wants to unify our country and grow the economy and create jobs everywhere. And then we win the White House."
Warren countered with, “We’re not going to solve the urgent problems that we face with small ideas and spinelessness. We’re going to solve them by being the Democratic Party of big structural change.”
It looked as if the CNN moderators — Dana Bash, Jake Tapper and Don Lemon — were giving Delaney and Ryan more opportunities to challenge the big ideas of structural change from Warren and Sanders than the lesser-known candidates got in the MSNBC debates. And that strategy succeeded in giving viewers a more revealing look at the policy and ideological disagreements among the Democrats.
Delaney never let up on the notion that universal health care as proposed by Sanders and Warren is “bad” policy.
“We can create a universal health care system to give everyone basic health care for free, and I have a proposal to do it. But we don’t have to go around and be the party of subtraction, and telling half the country, who has private health insurance, that their health insurance is illegal,” he said.
A feisty Sanders punched back. But it was Warren who really put Delaney in his place saying: “So, look, let’s be clear about this. We are the Democrats. 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 health care.”
That brought applause from the audience in Detroit’s Fox Theatre, which served as grand TV backdrop for the debate.
Sanders had one of his best moments when Ryan challenged the senator’s claim that his health plan would provide better coverage than what members of auto worker unions are now getting.
“They will be better because Medicare for all is comprehensive — it covers all health care needs,” Sanders said. “For senior citizens it will finally include dental care, hearing aids and eyeglasses.”
Ryan interrupted saying, “But you don’t know that, Bernie.”
“I do know it. I wrote the damn bill,” Sanders said to laughter and applause.
Like Warren, Sanders characterized the moderates on the stage as being “afraid of big ideas.”
One of the sharpest retorts from Warren came after Delaney said, “I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises, when we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics.”
That’s what I meant about using Delaney as a foil.
Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., had a couple of good rhetorical moments, but he was no match in energy or passion for the 70-year-old Warren or the 77-year-old Sanders. I was surprised by Buttigieg’s relatively low-key approach on a stage with nine other candidates fighting for airtime. I am impressed with his thoughtfulness and intellect. But in a TV debate with nine other candidates, cerebral might not be the best way to go. Save it for one-on-one interviews like the one he did with Rachel Maddow.
Give CNN credit for going all-out to make the debate a big event the past few days. But they had a harder task than MSNBC did, because as CNN was trying to get all eyes on Detroit, President Trump continued focusing attention on Baltimore with his attacks on the city and Congressman Elijah Cummings.
The second debate, with 10 more candidates, will be Wednesday night at 8 p.m.