5 Big Surprises from the Democratic Debate
Johnny Carson once quipped at the start of an Oscarcast that viewers were about to get "two hours of sparkling entertainment spread out over a four hour show."
That was on my mind by the end of the very long Democratic presidential debate. It took about 20 minutes before the first question was posed to the contenders --- following a snazzy starter video package, candidate introductions and opening statements.
While some critics complained that CNN set up the event to extract maximum conflict from the candidates and to exploit the divisions within the party, what did they expect? With ten candidates, producers were going to do whatever they could to highlight the friction. The questions did deal with genuine differences among the left and moderate wings of the party, and the moderators generated significant policy discussions. That's quite a contrast to the Trump-induced theatrics that became a staple of Republican debates in the last cycle.
That said, this debate was still too long.
Here are the biggest surprises of the night:
No Sanders vs. Warren skirmish: CNN's intro trumpeted the fact that Sanders would be facing off against Warren. That didn't happen. Instead, they acted like a team taking incoming fire from moderate rivals, appealing to the need for Democrats to embrace big ideas versus worrying so much about electability.
John Delaney's airtime. Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper were looking to break through as the star voices of moderation, but John Delaney was the standout frequent foil. He got 10.3 minutes of airtime, more than Ryan and Hickenlooper, according to The Washington Post, as he was asked about his criticism of fellow Democrats as offering "fairy tale" policies like Medicare for All and free college tuition.
The greater exposure, however, may not be to his advantage.
"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," Warren said to Delaney, in one of the more stinging criticisms of the evening. At one point, as moderator Don Lemon asked Delaney about being subject to Warren's proposed "wealth tax," she actually grinning and rubbed her hands together.
Buttigieg, above the fray: Pete Buttigieg stayed out of the debate's moderate-liberal battles, except when he said that Democrats should "stop worrying" what Republicans would say about their policies and just "go out there and defend" them.
The result made some pundits declare that he had only a so-so night.
Instead of sparring with other Democrats, Buttigieg focused on going up against Trump, even outlining the scenario of a general election debate. "Nominate me and you get to see the president of the United States stand next to an American war veteran and explain why he chose to pretend to be disabled when it was his chance to serve."
He also delivered some of the more eloquent lines of the evening, as when he said that "if you are watching at home and you are a Republican member of Congress, consider the fact that when the sun sets on your career, and they are writing your story of all the good and bad things you did in your life, the thing you will be remembered for is whether in this moment, with this president, you found the courage to stand up to him or continued to put party over country.”
In the long term, it's perhaps smart for him to focus on how he'd take on Trump, rather than other Democrats. Many of Buttigieg's supporters love him --- but on their minds is just how he'd fare in the general election.
'I wrote the damn bill': One of the more interesting exchanges came when Ryan doubted that Sanders' Medicare for All plan would provide the same or better coverage than that offered by union-based health plans. Ryan's argument has pragmatic political resonance, as he suggested that taking away private insurance would threaten Democrats' labor support.
The exchange, though, left Sanders with one of his signature lines. "I do know it, I wrote the damn bill," he said. Before the debate was even over, Sanders' campaign blasted out an email to supporters, offering stickers with that quote.
Marianne Williamson's moments. Williamson was mocked in the first debate for being out her element; this time around, her speaking style triggered a spurt of curiosity. She was the most searched-for candidate on Google Trends, as she talked of things such as an "amoral economic system" and Trump's "dark psychic force." She even used the term, "Yada. Yada. Yada."
"We need to recognize that when it comes to the economic gap between blacks and whites in America it does come from a great injustice that has never been dealt with," she said.
Her way of addressing reparations and the environment generated genuine praise in post-debate punditry, even if commentators still dismiss the idea that she will be the Democratic nominee.