The most progressive candidates on stage at the Democratic debate in Detroit on Tuesday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., dominated the event — despite a bizarre decision by the host network, CNN, to frame the discussion as a running critique of their far-reaching policy proposals to reform the federal government.
As Yousef Munayyer of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights observed, “CNN set up this debate as a multi-front ambush on Warren and Sanders.” Indeed, the entire structure of the debate, starting with the first questions about Medicare for All, introduced by Sanders and supported by Warren, was based on the premise, recently popular with pundits, that Democrats are in danger of moving too far to the left.
That framing led to the bizarre opening exchange in which a fringe candidate, former Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., was invited by the moderator Jake Tapper to attack the two highest-polling candidates, Sanders and Warren, for planning to replace the private health insurance industry with a government-run plan. In a forceful rebuttal to Delaney, Warren pointed out that by accusing Sanders of wanting to take people’s private health insurance away, the former Democratic congressman was channeling the Republicans.
“Let’s be clear about this: We are the Democrats,” Warren said in a moment that was tweeted out by her campaign. “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 healthcare.”
Sanders and Warren were then pressed repeatedly by Tapper to say if moving to Medicare for All would require some middle-class families to pay more in taxes. Sanders noted that middle class families would pay less overall — because any increase in taxes would be less than their current costs for insurance and deductibles. And he slammed Tapper for the premise of the question — which is, as he pointed out twice, a Republican talking point. “And by the way,” he added, “the healthcare industry will be advertising tonight on this program… with that talking point.”
“Why doesn’t CNN ask basic questions about drug companies gouging the public, or the health care industry using its largesse to manipulate the media and Congress to maintain the status quo,” my colleague Lee Fang tweeted. “Why only this narrow question about taxes that never gets asked about other policy demands?”
When Tapper then put forward the argument against Medicare for All offered by Joe Biden — that union members who have fought for good health care plans should be allowed to keep them — Sanders shut down criticism by Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, another centrist, of what his plan would provide. “But you don’t know that, Bernie,” Ryan interjected. Sanders replied: “I do know it, I wrote the damned bill.”
Before the debate was even over, the Sanders campaign had made those words into a sticker and was using it to solicit donations from supporters.
Delaney then criticized Sanders and Warren for not understanding the health care industry he has been part of and profited from. “I’m the only one on the stage who actually has experience in the health care business, and with all due respect, I don’t think my colleagues understand the business,” Delaney said.
“It’s not a business!” Sanders replied. “Maybe you did that and made money off healthcare,” Sanders added moments later, “but our job is to run a nonprofit healthcare system.”
As the debate wore on, the framing, which invited the low-polling centrist Democrats to attack the frontrunners at center stage, irritated more and more observers.
Again and again, the moderators urged centrist candidates to voice their concerns with the proposals of Warren and Sanders. One of those questions led Warren to respond to Delaney with the signature reply of the night.
“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 cheers.
Later, Warren even rubbed her hands with glee when Delaney was informed that his net worth of $65 million would make him subject to her proposed wealth tax.
Having constructed the entire debate to generate disagreements between the progressive candidates, whose ideas are finding support from Democratic primary voters, and centrist candidates who are struggling to get past 1 percent in the polls, CNN concluded the evening with the headline it had worked so hard to create: “Breaking: Liberal and Moderate Democrats Clash in Detroit.”