DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JULY 30: Former Maryland congressman John Delaney during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Media critic

DETROIT — Former Maryland representative John Delaney barely registers in polling for the ongoing Democratic presidential primary contest. So he surely had to have been delighted when CNN debate co-moderator Jake Tapper invoked him in the first question of the night, which went to top-tier candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The topic was health care, an issue on which Delaney had criticized Sanders. “What do you say to Congressman Delaney?” asked Tapper. Sanders said Delaney was “wrong,” and off they went into a discussion of private insurance plans, costs and so on.

It was the first of several such moments for Delaney in an intense and substance-filled debate at the majestic Fox Theatre in Detroit. (Disclosure: The Erik Wemple Blog, along with hundreds of other reporters, was near the Fox Theatre — at an adjacent sports bar named Hockeytown Cafe — but not actually in it.) The wealthy businessman found himself at the center of several key policy tussles.

Like this one with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another top tier type:

Any bets on how many times CNN replays that “moment” in tomorrow’s look-back coverage?

Truth is, it mattered for two reasons: One, it delivered something significant. The Democratic candidates for president agree on many, many things — first of all, that President Trump needs to go, that he’s deploying divisive means to advance his political fortunes and diminishing U.S. prestige and credibility abroad. They agree broadly that the tax system and the economy aren’t working for working people, and that something drastic needs to be done to address climate change.

They’re somewhat divided, however, on solutions. Progressives such as Warren and others have proposed ideas across the topical landscape — health care, student debt, climate change — that call for major changes in how the federal government works. Delaney dissented a bit from the activism:

Delaney: I think Democrats win when we run on real solutions, not impossible promises. When we run on things that are workable, not fairy tale economics, look at the story of Detroit, this amazing city that we’re in. This city is turning around because the government and the private sector are working well together. That has to be our model going forward. ...

Warren: I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running to be the president of the United States to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it. Our biggest problem in Washington is corruption. It is giant corporations that have taken our government and that are holding it by the throat, and we need to have the courage to fight back against that and until we’re ready to do that, it’s just more of the same. Well, I’m ready to get in this fight. I’m ready to win this fight.

Very early in the proceedings, it became clear that the strategy of the network was to take criticisms voiced previously by the candidates and place them before their targets. For instance, Tapper asked former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper: “I’d like to hear what you say about Senator Warren’s suggestion that those people on the stage who are not in favor of Medicare-for-all lack the political will to fight for it.”

A good portion of the questioning from the moderators proceeded along those lines, a smart way to inform the public of the often small-bore policy differences among the candidates.

Another, less important, thing: The Delaney tetes-a-tetes delivered the made-for-television twitching and smirking and grinning and shifting and twisting behavior of Delaney himself. CNN made good use of its split-screen option to show every contortion from the long shot candidate as his ideas went through the Democratic primary vetting machine. Debate watchers were transfixed:

ABC News and Univision, which will hold the third round of debates in Houston in September, could use a smirking star like Delaney on its debate stage. Trouble is, the qualification criteria for that debate will be more stringent. His “moment” may have come and gone.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Delaney and Warren had a good night. CNN had a terrible one.

Stephen Stromberg: Sanders and Warren got crushed, finally

E.J. Dionne Jr.: The first CNN debate showed just how fractious the Democratic primary fight may get

Liberal-moderate divides on health care, immigration and core issues clear

Graphic: Which candidate spoke the most on night one of the second debate?