From Fox News to CNN to CBS, the morning line is that Democrats at the Tuesday night debate revealed a “fight for the soul of the party,” with moderates and progressives in full-on conflict over left-wing ideas that just will not play in the Midwest. And you can absolutely hear the same media outlets sighing in relief that they’ve finally, finally gotten the “Democrats in disarray” narrative they so desperately wanted. Even if it is absolute bulls#it.
At the first round of the second Democratic presidential debate, it wasn’t candidates who revealed a new strategy. It was the CNN moderators. That strategy was to use all the “I didn’t even know that guy was running” candidates crowding their stage by picking them up in bundles and hurling them at Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders over, and over, and over, to generate the impression of a schism in the party. When the truth is absolutely not what was seen on that stage.
Throughout the evening, the typical Jake Tapper question took the form of “Elizabeth Warren once said this, now Candidate No One Knew Was Running, please explain why that’s too commie to play in Sheboygan.” And if the candidate didn’t give the desired soundbite against Warren or Sanders, they were rapidly shut down, and someone else got the call. And the designated time for reply meant that Sanders or Warren rarely got to finish a sentence before Tapper was throwing the next dead fish their way. That’s why characters such as former Rep. John Delaney got a chance to speak over, and over, and over. Because Delaney could be counted on to speak directly from the GOP handbook, saying that the more progressive candidates were offering “bad policies” and “free stuff for everyone” and “impossible promises that will turn off independent voters.” And when they had thrown all the Delaney they could, Tapper tossed on some Tim Ryan, and then a good dose of Steve Bullock.
The result was, as The Washington Post noted, that Warren and Sanders spoke more often than anyone else. But rather than getting much of a chance to explain their policies, they did so under constant attack from “outside candidates” who got much “more talking time than would have been expected, given their position in the polls.”
It doesn’t take more than looking at CNN’s own poll to see how idiotic the idea of this great schism really is. In that poll, John Delaney got the bare 1% needed to climb onto the stage. Tim Ryan got 1%. Amy Klobuchar, John Hickenlooper, and Steve Bullock combined got … 0%. It didn’t matter, because CNN used its numbers to play pile on the front runners. And they got the results they wanted.
It’s not as if there isn’t a genuine reason to believe there’s a division in the party. After all, Wednesday night’s group of 10 will feature Joe Biden, who is still leading the party in practically every national poll. But Biden, for all his verbal gaffes and man-out-of-time kerfuffles, doesn’t really give the media the fight it wants. After all, Biden supports the Green New Deal, the $15 minimum wage, and increasing taxes on the wealthy. If the “fight for the Democratic soul” comes down to Biden declaring he wants a “medicare-like public option for all Americans” versus a plan to phase in Medicare for All … that’s a fight that’s already being held on some pretty progressive ground.
But it doesn’t provide the narrative that the media wants. So don’t be surprised if the Wednesday night debate includes lots of chances for Michael Bennet or Tulsi Gabbard to tell you why something Joe Biden or Kamala Harris said was so, so wrong.
Though honestly, it’s going to be harder for Tapper to create his “Candidate X, would you please bite the front runner on command?” questions on Wednesday, because there just won’t be as many Delaneys on the stage to explain why two years of campaigning and 1% in the polls makes them smarter than anyone else on stage. And thank goodness for that.