If it seemed like John Delaney was always responding to Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday night, you’re not wrong.
The CNN moderators went to Delaney 11 times during Tuesday’s Democratic debates as they tried to draw out the drama between the former Maryland congressman and the liberal senators from Massachusetts and Vermont.
Despite polling below 1% in the Real Clear Politics aggregate polling average, Delaney got the fourth-most time of the 10 candidates on stage, just behind Warren (polling at 14%), Sanders (polling at 16.2%), and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg (polling at 5.7%).
As in his first debate, Delaney’s strategy was to contrast himself with Sanders and Warren. But that also seemed to be CNN’s strategy. In fact, the most notable aspect of Delaney’s debate performance was that every question he answered was either preceded or followed by an answer from Sanders or Warren.
When Jake Tapper began moderating the debate, he started by asking Sanders what he would say to Delaney, who has called “Medicare for All” “political suicide.”
“You’re wrong,” Sanders shot back as he detailed the flaws in the U.S. health care system.
The moderators then gave Delaney a minute to respond to Sanders, the top-polling candidate on the stage Tuesday night.
Delaney’s answer hewed closely to GOP talking points about health care. He said Democrats didn’t need to be “the party of subtraction” when it came to private health insurance, and when CNN went back to him for a follow-up, added that Democrats shouldn’t be the “party of taking something away from people.”
Warren, the second-highest polling candidate on the stage, also took on Delaney, saying Democrats are not trying to take away health care from anyone. “That’s what the Republicans are trying to do,” she said.
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The moderators brought Delaney in again to respond, and he bragged that he was the only Democrat on that stage who “actually had experience in the health care business.”
“It’s not a business,” Sanders quipped.
Delaney seemed to understand his part Tuesday night and went after Sanders and Warren repeatedly. When he got yet another chance to speak on health care, he claimed that the Medicare for All bill that Sanders had drafted would lower the quality of health care. “I’ve done the math,” Delaney said. “It doesn’t add up.”
“Maybe you did that and made money off of health care,” Sanders responded, “but our job is to run a nonprofit health care system.”
That direct attack earned Delaney ― who, again, is polling at less than 1% ― yet another response, where he said he was starting to think this wasn’t about health care but was just some “anti-private sector” sentiment.
When Tapper asked Warren if calling herself a capitalist was her way of drawing a distinction between herself and Sanders, Tapper didn’t go to Sanders next; he went to Delaney.
“Democrats win when we run on real solutions,” Delaney said, “not impossible promises ― when we run on things that are workable, not fairy-tale economics.”
He then expounded on that answer by saying the model should be the government and the private sector working together.
CNN then went back to Warren, who slapped Delaney down by saying she didn’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.”
That earned Delaney yet another response. He noted that when the government created Social Security, it didn’t outlaw pensions. “That’s the equivalent of what Senator Sanders and Senator Warren are proposing with health care,” he said.
And even as Warren protested and Delaney mentioned her by name, moderators moved on to Sanders and then Klobuchar.
When the moderators finally moved on to climate change, they started with Delaney.
They asked about his quote that the Green New Deal was about as likely to work as Mexico paying for a border wall. “Why isn’t this sweeping plan to fight the climate crisis realistic?” CNN host Dana Bash asked.
Delaney answered that the Green New Deal tied things like health care to climate.
CNN then went to ― surprise! ― Warren. “You’re a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal,” Dana Bash said. “Your response to Congressman Delaney?”
Warren said climate change was an existential crisis for the world, and she noted her own plan, which is to put $2 trillion into researching the climate crisis.
When CNN moved into a trade debate, Delaney offered that he was the only one on the stage who supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership and mentioned that Warren had just proposed a plan further restricting trade.
“You bet I did,” Warren interjected before CNN went to her.
Warren’s response was that, for decades, trade policies had been written by large corporations.
Delaney began interrupting Warren, but instead of docking him time, CNN let him respond that the trade deal Warren seemed to want was the TPP.
And finally, when CNN asked Delaney about his estimated $65 million ― and how he would be subject to Warren’s wealth tax ― Delaney said he would raise taxes on the wealthy like himself (without addressing Warren’s proposed wealth tax).
Per the standard operating procedure, CNN then went to Warren. The Massachusetts senator explained that her wealth tax would tax net worths beyond $50 million at 2%.
By that time, the debate was winding down and Delaney couldn’t get in another response to draw out his distinctions between Warren and Sanders. But he didn’t need to.
Delaney ― with the help of CNN ― was somehow able to present himself as the diametric opposition in the Democratic Party to Warren and Sanders. And even if he is essentially paying for his supporters to put him on the debate stage, CNN clearly sees him as an essential stand-in for Republican opposition to the left wing.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, criticized the network for allowing candidates who haven’t “yet shown a lot of grassroots support controlling, in my mind, too much time on the debate stage.”
“You saw a lot of performance theater,” Shakir said, adding that he hopes future debates focus more on the candidates who are polling at the top of the field.
Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.