There are only three storylines that matter from Tuesday night’s Democratic primary debate, the third overall:
1. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the only two progressives among the approximately 90 candidates running, stood up to the attacks of men who, if they’re not actually Republicans, certainly talk like them. Warren and former Maryland Rep. John Delaney in particular went toe-to-toe on numerous occasions, with Delaney—a rictus grin plastered on his face as he stood in for the Republican Mindset when Jake Tapper wasn’t doing the job—helpfully lecturing her on all the improvements to American life that aren’t possible. Then Warren scored the knockout blow of the night:
Elizabeth's moment pic.twitter.com/Wkj63iaOAB— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 31, 2019
Yeah, exactly. Why are any of these nobodies running if they have no vision to offer beyond the status quo? We've already got the no-vision status quo angle covered, fellas, and the only company Uncle Joe Biden wants is the constant implied shadow of Barack Obama.
Bernie also scored a subtler blow against Delaney, and made headlines for his “I wrote the damn bill!” retort when deer-permanently-stuck-in-headlights Tim Ryan doubted his capacity to cover eyecare and dental and hearing for senior citizens under his Medicare for All plan.
Of course, the outcomes of these sorties were to some extent pre-determined. There's a reason Sanders and Warren are polling so well—second and third, respectively, after The Guy Who Knows Obama—and that reason is because they espouse popular policies that the majority of Americans support and that would obviously make this country a nicer place to live. Because they espouse those policies, they have an easy authenticity that people respect, while the likes of Delaney are forced to constantly play on the defensive and explain that yes, the policies are good, of course they're good, but uhhhh, here's why we can't do them right now, and also, here's why “most Americans” actually hate them and will elect Trump if we dare to dream. (As Jake Weindling recently noted, this is nonsense.) The status quo sucks, and barring some major optics failure on the part of the two progressive candidates, they're never going to lose a verbal spat to the Caution Cabal. Delaney was so bad that even Ezra Klein owned him:
Delaney is the perfect foil for Warren and Sanders. All of his arguments are about what will make for appealing politics. But his political style is totally unappealing. He's a refutation of himself.— Ezra Klein (@ezraklein) July 31, 2019
Warren's “why the hell are you even running, you soulless hack?” rejoinder was great (and led to a very funny Wikipedia edit), but the unspoken comeback was simpler: Nobody likes your ideas, which is why we're polling high and you're not, and please enjoy the spotlight because we're never going to see you on a debate stage again.
Things got so bad that the moderators desperately tried to turn Warren and Sanders against each other, but neither one was taking the bait. By easily parrying the collective attacks from the crypto-Republicans, Warren and Sanders distinguished themselves and virtually guaranteed that we're in a three-horse race (four at most, depending on Kamala Harris). This was the “silence the doubters” debate, and all that remains now is to set them loose on Biden.
2. Speaking of crypto-Republicans, everything you need to know about the moderators, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash in particular, can be summed up by this very good tweet:
I love living in a country where Republicans are convinced CNN is run by the Spartacist Youth League but CNN nonetheless frames every single one of their Democratic debate questions using Republican talking points— Connor Wroe Southard (@ConnorSouthard) July 31, 2019
Or this one:
What percentage of coverage of the Dem primary is framed around the question:
"Are the Democrats Moving Too Far Left"?
There are other ways to analyze this race.— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) July 31, 2019
Or this one:
CNN: Senator Warren, you say you won't use a nuclear weapons and kill millions of people preemptively. Why would you tie our hands this way?
Glad to see journalism is alive and well. #DemDebate— Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) July 31, 2019
Or this one:
CNN: "Elizabeth Warren, do you hate Bernie Sanders?"
ELIZABETH WARREN: "No, in fact, we agree on many-"
CNN: "Okay, shut up. Um, Bernie, do you hate Hickenlooper?"
BERNIE: "Not really, but we disagree on the policy of-"
CNN: "Don't care – ok um, who else uh: Beto, do you hate— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) July 31, 2019
You get the point. The moderators had two modes—either they were trying to get the candidates to fight with one another, most of the time on fairly superficial points (“Elizabeth Warren says you’re spineless…respond!”), or they were parroting Republican talking points as they threw “gotcha” questions at Sanders and Warren.
The consistency was incredible. When asking Sanders about Medicare for All, Tapper’s two go-to inquisitions were “why do you want to throw people off their beloved private insurance?” and “you have three seconds…admit you’re going to raise taxes.” As Tapper himself understands, these are incredibly deceptive points. People are not going to “lose” insurance under M4A, since they’re gaining government insurance that will give them more freedom both as patients and workers. As for taxes…first, most middle class Americans will save money overall even with higher taxes because of all the healthcare expenditures they’re no longer making, and second, good programs require money and taxes are not evil. These are not complicated ideas to understand, but Tapper seemed hellbent on pushing the Republican narrative at every step, as he has for the last four years.
Same with national security. Imagine considering yourself an “objective” journalist, and then asking Warren about her “we won’t nuke you first” policy like this:
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. Now, President Obama reportedly considered that policy, but ultimately decided against it. Why should the U.S. tie its own hands with that policy?
Tie its own hands! It’s amazing that Tapper can hold himself upright, carrying that much Republican water. Here’s a collection of ten other unbelievable phrasings from Tapper and Bash, all of them tinted by conservative ideology:
—Are you also, quote, “with Bernie” on Medicare for all when it comes to raising taxes on middle-class Americans to pay for it?
—You are willing to raise taxes on middle-class Americans in order to have universal coverage with the disappearance of insurance premiums, yes or no?
—If Medicare for all is enacted, there are more than 600,000 union members here in Michigan who would be forced to give up their private healthcare plans.
—Mayor Buttigieg, you’re in favor of getting rid of the law that makes it a crime to come across the U.S. border illegally. Why won’t that just encourage more illegal immigration?
—Senator Sanders, you want to provide undocumented immigrants free health care and free college. Why won’t this drive even more people to come to the U.S. illegally?
—Congressman Ryan, are Senator Sanders’ proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into this country illegally?
—Thank you, Governor. Senator Warren, you make it a point to say that you’re a capitalist. Is that your way of convincing voters that you might be a safer choice than Senator Sanders?
—Governor Hickenlooper, you ran a Facebook ad that warned “socialism is not the answer.” The ad also said, “don’t let extremes give Trump four more years,” are you saying that Senator Sanders is too extreme to beat President Trump?
—You are proposing to make college free for all qualified students. Should the government pay for children from wealthier families to go to college?
—Senator Sanders, President Trump has argued that the United States cannot continue to be the, quote, “policeman of the world.” You said the exact same thing on a debate stage in 2016. If voters are hearing the same message from you and President Trump on the issue of military intervention, how should they expect that you will be any different from him?
With moderators like these, who needs Republicans?
3. If any candidate has a prayer of winning the nomination from outside the Big Four—by which I mean Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris—it’s Marianne Williamson.
Think I’m crazy? Well, maybe. Odds are she’ll fail to meet the criteria for the next debate and fade away. But despite the prevailing narrative that she’s at least 40% lunatic, almost everything she says, at every debate, both makes sense and draws huge applause. And guess who was the most Googled candidate after Tuesday night’s drama, despite the fact that she spoke about five times? Her competitors outside the Big Four have failed to carve out a niche—Buttigieg and O’Rourke were competent, and occasionally better than competent, but that’s not good enough for either of them at this stage—but Williamson is the wild card that could catch fire.
Who else is saying things like this:
I assure you, I lived in Grosse Pointe — what happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe. This is part of the dark underbelly of American society. The racism, the bigotry, and the entire conversation that we’re having here tonight — if you think any of this wonkiness is going to deal with this dark psychic (ph) force of the collectivized hatred that this president is bringing up in this country, then I’m afraid that the Democrats are going to see some very dark days.
And who else has the cojones to say the following on reparations?
People heal when there’s some deep truth-telling. 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.
That great injustice has had to do with the fact that there was 250 years of slavery followed by another hundred years of domestic terrorism…
And I believe that $200 billion to $500 billion is politically feasible today, because so many Americans realize there is an injustice that continues to form a toxicity underneath the surface, an emotional turbulence that only reparations will heal.
No one, that’s who. Yes, she may be raising eyebrows too late in the game, but she’s compelling. Not to go all Jake Tapper on you and compare her to Trump, but there’s a similar phenomenon at play—people want to treat her as a joke, but the fact is, we can’t look away. She can be off-brand at times, such as the (frankly shocking) fact that she doesn’t support Medicare for All, but I’ll just say this: Ignore her odd brand of spiritual politics at your own risk. I have this feeling, admittedly not supported by data, that we’re going to hear more from her.