“Tonight: a fight for the heart of the party. Senator Bernie Sanders, determined to seize his second chance at the nomination … going head-to-head with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Longtime friends fighting for the same cause—and the same voters.”
That was the introduction to the compilation video CNN aired on Tuesday evening, just before the network’s Democratic primary debate started. The video was a trailer for reality, essentially, its story of battles to come told in a giddy, in-a-world tone. It included lightning-round bios of the 10 participating candidates. And shots of some of those candidates pumping their fists in the air. And a jubilant musical score. And, at one climactic moment, a video of an American flag, swaying poetically in the wind.
The melodrama, it would turn out, was fitting. Throughout the debate, the first of a two-night doubleheader set at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, the event’s moderators—Jake Tapper, Dana Bash, and Don Lemon—did what the network’s trailer suggested they would: They asked questions that might turn this fight for the heart of the party into a plain old fight.
One of their questions: “Senator Warren, you make it a point to say you’re a capitalist. Is that your way of saying you’re a safer choice than Senator Sanders?” Another: “Congressman Ryan, are Senator Sanders’s proposals going to incentivize undocumented immigrants to come into the country illegally?” Another: “Congressman O’Rourke, you live near the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso and disagree with Mayor Buttigieg on decriminalizing the border crossings. Please respond.” The chyrons gave away the game: “QUESTION: Congressman Delaney, do you think Sen. Warren’s wealth tax is a fair way to fund child care and education?” Here was another: “QUESTION: Sen. Klobuchar, who are you referring to when you say candidates are making promises just to get elected?”