Critic's Notebook: At Second Democratic Debate, It's Sanders and Warren Against the World

CNN Democratic Debate Round 2 Part 1_Bernie Sanders_Elizabeth Warren 2 - Getty - H 2019

The two progressive candidates vigorously battled their more moderate challengers in a spirited evening centered on the future direction of the party.

The first evening of the second Democratic debate, which could have been billed as "The All-Caucasian Edition," featured a powerful ideological clash between two candidates. That aspect was predictable. What no one could have seen coming was that it would feature Elizabeth Warren and…John Delaney.

You're probably asking, "John who?" To save you the trouble of googling, he's a former congressman from Maryland whom, up until now, virtually no one had heard of, including those who actually saw him in the first debate.

But he certainly got a lot of attention this night, heatedly arguing with Warren about everything from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal to decriminalizing the border to a wealth tax. Delaney and his team were no doubt popping the champagne corks as soon as the event ended. Even when making the most serious of points, Delaney seemed positively thrilled just to be noticed. 

With Bernie Sanders and Warren standing front and center, the debate quickly became one between the progressives and the moderates. Sure, Donald Trump took some hits. But it was those two frontrunners who were in the crosshairs of the lesser-known candidates desperately attempting to have viral moments and avoid being kicked off the island.  

Warren and Sanders both had terrific evenings. They so clearly relished the opportunity to defend their progressive agendas that you expected them to stand back to back, like action movie heroes being attacked from both sides. They also delivered some of the evening's best zingers, such as Warren's savage takedown of her moderate primary challengers: "I don't know why people run for president of the United States to talk about what we really can't do and shouldn't fight for." (Oh, snap!)

Sanders, not wanting to be overshadowed, weighed in with a similar sentiment. "I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas," he announced, not sounding tired at all. When challenged by Tim Ryan about one aspect of his Medicare for All plan, Sanders snapped back, "I know that! I wrote the damn bill!" Sanders is actually the oldest candidate in the race, but nobody talks about his age. And for good reason. He's so animated that he makes Beto O'Rourke look decrepit. At one point, Ryan even had to remind him, "You don't have to yell." Sanders also made so many references to his recent trip to Canada to purchase cheap medicine that you began to fear he would include a slide presentation.    

Such contenders as John Hickenlooper, Ryan and Delaney argued just as passionately that only they could win over more middle-of-the-road voters. So did Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who was the sole newcomer to the proceedings. Bullock lost no opportunity to remind us that he was the governor of a red state that went for Trump, denouncing "wish list economics" and describing himself as a "populist Democrat" who could "get stuff done." Except, apparently, qualify for a spot in the first debate.

Pete Buttigieg constantly reminded us about his age. He made references to his "entire adult lifetime" and to something happening in his community "20 years before I was born." He informed us that in 10 years he'd still be in his forties, and that he was still in high school when Columbine happened (the last comment prompting an Amy Klobuchar eye roll). We get it, Mayor Pete, you're young, you're adorable. You probably still get carded when you go to a bar.

Buttigieg also made an admiring remark about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the second time in as many debates she's been mentioned favorably. You get the feeling she's the candidate the Democrats are dying to run.

Beto O'Rourke, floundering in the polls, knew that he had to have a good night. And he mostly did, sounding far more dynamic and animated than in his anemic performance at the first debate. But he seemed to be overreaching when he described how he traveled to every single county in Texas, making it sound like he could win the presidency just by taking a really long road trip. He also promised to deliver his state's 38 electoral votes, which seems a bit of a stretch considering that he couldn't get elected senator there.

Klobuchar was determined to stay above the fray. Instead, she brought up Trump more than any of the others, acting as if she had already won the primary and was now fighting in the general election. Her main selling point was that she has never lost a race, apparently forgetting that the same could be said of Trump. She also kept referring to the fact that she's from the Midwest, as if to remind us that she's not one of those liberal elites whom conservatives won't trust. (The Midwest seemed like a very nice place when I flew over it, but I'm getting tired of its voters constantly being courted with wine and roses.)

Marianne Williamson (and it pains me to say this) made a strong impression on this stop of what's turning out to be a very successful book tour. She may be the only presidential candidate in history who can say "yadda, yadda, yadda" in a debate and make it sound profound. Twice decrying the "wonkiness" of her fellow candidates, she archly commented, "I almost wonder why you're Democrats." Her fervent promises to deliver "politics that speak to the heart," "deep truth telling" and "healing" were delivered in the cadences of an inspirational speaker. Oh wait, she is one.

The lower-polling candidates each had strong moments, but probably not strong enough to move the bar sufficiently to jumpstart their campaigns. Hickenlooper, whose own campaign staffers recently asked him to withdraw from the race, seemed to acknowledge that reality in his closing statement. "What a night! I loved it!" the former Colorado governor said in a wistful tone. It sounded very much like a farewell.