People who tuned in to the Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday night could have been forgiven for thinking they accidentally turned the channel to Fox News.
At times during the debate, CNN hosts framed policy questions around Republican talking points. The first instance of this came during the very first question of the debate, when host Jake Tapper’s question to Sen. Bernie Sanders about Medicare-for-all was framed around concerns that President Donald Trump will make it a 2020 campaign issue.
“You support Medicare-for-all, which would eventually take private health insurance away from more than 150 million Americans in exchange for government-sponsored health care for everyone,” Tapper said. “Congressman [John] Delaney just referred to it as bad policy, and previously he’s called the idea political suicide that will just get President Trump reelected. What do you say to Congressman Delaney?”
A short time later, Tapper asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren if she’s “with Bernie on Medicare-for-all,” even though the middle class would pay more in taxes. Warren responded not by discussing the policy in terms of taxes (a frame the GOP has frequently deployed), but by talking about the total cost American families pay now for their health coverage, through both taxes and the cost of health insurance. Sanders was even more direct — he accused Tapper of invoking a “Republican talking point.”
“Any by the way, the health care industry will be advertising tonight on this program,” he added, as Tapper tried to move on quickly — another common occurrence that was widely criticized by debate observers.
The conversation about immigration was also framed around talking points Republicans regularly invoke, such as Democrats incentivizing unauthorized immigration by being soft at the border and providing health insurance to unauthorized immigrants.
On numerous occasions, moderators’ questions seemed to lead candidates to attack some of the field’s more progressive ideas.
Though no Republicans were physically onstage on Tuesday night in Detroit, it too often seemed they were living rent-free inside the moderators’ heads. But candidates mostly handled it well, and occasionally — as in the case of the health care discussion — it helped lay out the spectrum along which the 10 candidates fell, with Sanders and Warren supporting Medicare-for-all while more moderate candidate like Delaney attacked it.
Even so, the debate sometimes felt like it was more about attacking progressive policy proposals or responding to Republican talking points than it was substantively exploring the differences between the candidates.