From painfully canned lines to paint-by-the-numbers tales of personal triumph in the face of adversity, last night’s Democratic debate in Detroit bore every hallmark of the genre. But amid scripted and focused-grouped flourishes (“wish list economics!”, “bold AND realistic!”, “Medicare for all…who want it!”, “not left and right but new and better!”), there was little doubt about one thing: the two candidates charting a more transformative and confrontational course for the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, set the terms of the evening.
Despite media predictions of a clash between Warren and Sanders, their joint presence on the stage proved mutually reinforcing, polarizing issue after issue and compelling the remaining field of mostly centrist candidates to offer endless variations on the theme of “no.” Ironically, this meant more airtime for decidedly right-leaning figures like Johns Hickenlooper and Delaney, whose onslaughts against Sanders and Warren often left the likes of media darlings Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Beto O’Rourke sounding vague and unfocused.
CNN’s moderation of the debate only exacerbated this dynamic, with hosts (particularly Jake Tapper) grafting a conservative frame onto key questions surrounding healthcare and immigration. In theory, this should have aided the self-proclaimed moderates; in practice, it tended to reinforce the basic polarity between those treating the 2020 election as a political and moral crusade and those approaching it like an eighteen-month job interview for a position in upper management.
As in the last round of debates, moderators and centrists alike drew from a familiar arsenal of misleading soundbites and cliches — particularly when it came to the issue of eliminating the for-profit health insurance industry and the illusory “choice” it supposedly provides millions of Americans (the industry, for its part, positively bombarded viewers with ads touting its social conscience during every break). Sanders and Warren largely turned these to their advantage, seizing them as opportunities to polarize the debate around fundamental questions of ethics and morality, and causing rivals like Delaney and Steve Bullock to shift intermittently between awkward shuffling and dismissive smirks.
The next round of debates will probably be leaner in number, short a few of the forgettably conventional Democrats who — their hubristic claim to speak for a nonexistent centrist majority notwithstanding — will soon have to face up to laughably terrible poll numbers and bow out. But it appears increasingly likely that the primary campaign will be a referendum on the failed strategies and pro-corporate politics that have enabled the current Republican hegemony — and that those intent on retaining the supposed middle ground are going to find it fast separating beneath their feet.