One thing is absolutely certain coming out of the first night of the CNN Democratic debates in Detroit: Despite months of chin-scratching punditry pitting "electability" against strong progressive views, by the end of the night Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts showed that they're not just the most progressive candidates on stage, they're also the most electable.
As I predicted, Warren and Sanders did not turn on each other, although CNN moderator Jake Tapper repeatedly tried to bait them into it. Instead, they backed each other up and faced off against the moderates that made up the rest of the stage. The tag-team strategy allowed both Warren and Sanders to walk away as winners at the end of the night. Contrary to my initial concerns, it also made for an exciting debate — and one that bodes well for future debates, when the pointless candidates are finally winnowed out and these two will take on former Vice President Joe Biden.
They didn't have Biden to kick around on Tuesday evening, but Warren and Sanders were given the gift of former Rep. John Delaney, whose bug-eyed eagerness to paint the sorts of generous social programs that are standard in most other developed countries as total crazypants provided an excellent foil. It was straight-up weird that CNN's moderators gave so much talking time to Delaney, a millionaire businessman who briefly rented a Maryland congressional seat and is polling below 1%. But he made a wonderful heel for Warren and Sanders, who spent most of the night dunking on him deliciously.
"I genuinely do not understand why anyone would go to all the trouble of running for president just to get up on this stage and talk about what’s not possible," Warren said at one point, in response to one of Delaney's rants about how it's somehow not possible to do more to help ordinary Americans live better, more secure lives.
"Republicans are not afraid of big ideas," Sanders announced dramatically, correctly pointing out that the tax cuts enacted by Donald Trump and former Speaker Paul Ryan are far more expensive than all manner of social programs we're repeatedly told we can't afford.
Even New Age author Marianne Williamson got caught up in the dunking-on-the-moderates energy, declaring, "I look at some of you and I almost wonder why you’re Democrats," and adding, to big applause, "You almost think something is wrong with using the instruments of government to help people."
As Vox's Matt Yglesias tweeted, "The moderators’ decision to make John Delaney the central figure in the debate is sort of strange, but I guess this is what happens when you can’t get actual front-runner Biden on stage."
But it wasn't just Delaney. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado all trotted out variations of the claim that it's too expensive or dangerous to embrace "left-wing" policies that are considered unremarkable in much of Western Europe and Canada. All of them got crushed by Warren and Sanders, who were clear and confident in defending themselves.
Certainly, the CNN moderators tried hard to tip the debate against the progressives, with Tapper continually framing questions about single-payer health care in terms of a tax increase, even though Warren, Sanders and even Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, explained that most people won't care about a tax raise if they are relieved of paying health insurance premiums at the same time.
It simply didn't work. The topline takeaway of the night is that Warren and Sanders came across as the only candidates who had both the vision and the courage necessary to take on Trump in a general election.
We can only hope this debate will help undermine this nonsense narrative that pits electability against progressive politics. Indeed, by defending themselves against attacks from centrists all night, Warren and Sanders displayed that they not only have the fortitude to go against Trump, but that they were the only candidates on that stage with such fortitude.
While Warren and Sanders were the joint winners of the debate, it must also be said that Buttigieg demonstrated that he's a contender, despite his youth and the air of undeniable skepticism surrounding his candidacy. He did a masterful job all night of sidestepping the progressive vs. moderate debate and framing his answers in a way that will appeal to both camps. Frankly, it was reminiscent of Barack Obama's similar skills at seeming progressive but not aggressive. For those voters who long to return to the Obama era, Buttigieg might end up feeling like a better fit than Biden, who is currently trying to corner the Obama nostalgia vote.
Buttigieg's biggest misstep of the night was a line about how, as "an urban mayor serving a diverse community, the racial divide lives within me," a clunker that will do him no favors in shoring up his weak support with voters of color.
Still, while his performance was overshadowed by Warren and Sanders' mastery of the stage, Buttigieg is calm, professional and not to be underestimated. It will be interesting to see what he does on a stage that's been cleared of the pointless clutter-candidates who are wasting our time in these cattle-call debates.
He's not the only one. After tonight, it's clear what really needs to happen: The low-polling candidates need to clear out, making the way for more robust debates where the truly interesting contenders have more time to be heard. Luckily, the next debate in September will require higher polling and fundraising standards, and we can expect half the current candidates to be winnowed out.
After tonight, at any rate, progressives should be excited. The idea that milquetoast centrists are somehow more "electable" took a serious hit Tuesday night. It was clear that the passion and strength necessary to take on Trump is coming from the left side of the field. No doubt mainstream pundits will continue to harp on the false dichotomy that insists progressive candidates are not "electable" candidates. Hopefully the voters are not as easily bamboozled.