What the CNN anchors got wrong on debate night one, and why their questions mattered.

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If, like me, you tuned in to watch night one of the second Democratic debates from Detroit, you probably noticed something a little bit different about the approach the moderators selected by CNN (Don Lemon, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper) took compared to last month’s showdown in Miami.

Last night, the moderators weren’t out to be sober inquisitors or to structure a rational discussion on the important issues of the day. Instead, they leaned all the way into being your least favorite uncle at Christmas, goading candidates to argue and downright fight.

While we can’t really fault CNN for its “if it bleeds it leads” strategy to conjuring what they hoped would be compelling television by creating conflict, but almost without exception the questions weren’t just designed to cause friction, they were literal invitations to engage in hand-to-hand combat with other candidates on the stage.

But, in the aftermath of last night’s debate, the reactions of voters on social media and even the candidates on stage have been nonplussed. Several candidates accused the moderators of ditching real questions for Republican talking points, and many Democratic voters have agreed in anger. 

While it may be reasonable to assail the moderator’s thoughts and questions on Medicare for All, or to wonder why in the world John Delaney got so much screen time, the questions from the band of moderators exposed a massive vulnerability for Democratic candidates that has nothing to do with policy bonafides and everything to do with tactics.

No matter how vigorously we disagree with Republicans, they’re very good at doing one thing: messaging. For decades, Republicans have been breaking down their policy critiques into easily digestible talking points, and for decades Democrats have been ineffective in the way we respond to them.

As such, last night’s debate creating an interesting flashpoint on the issue that seems to be at the front of most Democratic voters minds: Who can beat Donald Trump? Who can stop the Republicans from creating dishonest static about who we are and what we stand for, and lead Democrats to victory next November?

The answer to those questions was a mixed bag. While Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders made the most of their time by making impassioned calls for the policies they’ve been advocating, most of the candidates seemed more content to take issue with the questions or the quibble with their fellow Democrats on stage. Warren had one of the finer moments of the debate when she called on Democrats not to be afraid, and to embrace the types of bold policies and structural change she’s been advocating, but aside from that none of the candidates seemed especially willing to take Republicans to task. 

Hopefully, that changes as the cycle progresses and Democrats find their voice, as well as their fighting spirit.

Elsewhere on the stage:

It was a solid night for Texan Beto O’Rourke, who was much improved over the June debates and had the line of the night as far as we’re concerned when he rightly said “There’s a new swing state. It’s Texas and it’s got 38 electoral votes.” The ability to win Texas as a Democrat would make it all but impossible for the Republicans to reclaim the White House, and O’Rourke smartly stakes his electability argument on his ability to move Texas into toss-up category. 

Many candidates on the stage now face an uncomfortable dilemma: they were standing pat while Marianne Williamson was gaining ground. Williamson, who is still on the far fringes of being a credible candidate, drew loud applause multiple times by speaking passionately on issues of race and even left several candidates in the dust with her full-throated call for reparations. While many have been dismissive of Williamson and her orb vibes, she showed a surprising amount of depth on the issue and even launched into breaking down the math for Don Lemon.

The anchors found the perfect foil for a Democratic debate in former Maryland Congressman John Delaney, who was repeatedly asked pointed questions about his centrist worldview and on more than one occasion entered into detailed back and forths with Bernie and Warren. I don’t know how many voters are moved by Delaney’s messaging, but he showed a willingness to do CNN’s dirty work and start fights with the more unabashed progressives in the race.

Speaking of Delaney, we’re still awaiting word on a wellness check after Elizabeth Warren absolutely savaged him and “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. I don’t get it.” The audience launched into laughter and applause, and Delaney was left in search of an ice pack.

However, we can’t overlook the fact that Delaney had an opportunity to get in the game and did what he could to make the most of it. While many voters feel he and other moderates like Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who made his first debate appearance last night in solid if not spectacular fashion, are different versions of the flavor meh, Delaney has gotten more traction and press mentions today than he has at any other point of the campaign. We’ll see if he can translate that into an uptick in his polling and contributions, but only time will tell if Delaney will make the stage for the September debates right here in Houston.

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