The breakout stars of the Democratic debates

President Tim Ryan, here we come?

Democratic candidates.
(Image credit: Illustrated | BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images, Scott Olson/Getty Images, jessicahyde/iStock, wanwi17/iStock)

Did the third — or, I suppose, the first half of the second — Democratic presidential debate have a winner? It depends what you mean by "winner." As far as I am concerned, the only candidate who said anything really memorable was Marianne Williamson, the health guru who railed against the "false god" of Mammon and all the powers of darkness. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had a few zingers too, I suppose. "I wrote the damn bill" was a bumper sticker half an hour before the debate even ended.

But the person who made the most of his opportunity was John Delaney, the former Maryland congressman who, as he reminded us ad taedium, is also a successful "entrepreneur." For reasons mysterious to me and millions of other viewers, CNN's moderators turned over and over again to this chump as he sang the praises of United Health Care Bronze Plus B and Ronald Reagan in between sniping at Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). He would have finished at least fifth in the 2016 Iowa GOP caucus.

As of Tuesday morning, Delaney was polling at 0 percent. I suspect that by the end of the week he will still be somewhere in the low single digits, assuming he manages to register at all. Which is why I don't understand why he was allowed to become the focal point of the evening. Does anyone really care what a retired member of Congress thinks about health care, which he will receive free of charge for the rest of his life because a few hundred thousand of his fellow citizens were bored enough to vote for him years ago?

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Who am I kidding. We all know why Delaney — not to be confused with his identical twin Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio or their older brother, the debate newcomer Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana — was called upon repeatedly: CNN, which began Tuesday's broadcast with an embarrassingly stupid ESPN-style montage, was trying to sell the debate as a nerd Super Bowl. To do this they needed conflict between progressives and self-styled moderates, and the ordinary back-and-forth between the candidates — which our hosts in fact went out of their way to shut down — was not going to be enough apparently. So instead they asked the guy who was in 20th place and the guy who was in 21st place and the guy who didn't even join this thing until a few weeks ago what they thought about the person who has been in second for more than a year.

Not everything the moderates said was ridiculous. There has always been a certain "Everyone gets a pony" dimension to proposals like the Green New Deal. When Ryan talked about creating a Cabinet-level director of industrial policy, I found myself wondering whether he had been reading American Affairs. I'm sure there are probably some people who feel their private employer-provided insurance is an important part of their compensation and might resent its disappearance (though I wonder how many of them would turn down more money if they could get coverage elsewhere). Trump and his advisers are praying as I write this that decriminalizing illegal immigration becomes part of the official DNC platform. Bullock and the others are right that purple-ish voters Democrats need to win in 2020 reject a lot of ideas that have become mainstream among progressives. (Now do late-term abortion and preferred pronouns, I kept wanting to say.)

Far more interesting than these pitched battles about single-payer health care and the environment are the things Democrats seem to agree on these days. It is strange to think that only three years ago Hillary Clinton ran as a kind of Burkean conservative. Her campaign was premised on the idea that everything was going more or less swimmingly in the United States; with a bit of tinkering at the margins — nothing too radical, of course — things would be perfect. "America," she reminded us again and again, "is already great."

Clearly not enough people were convinced, and since then, Democrats have noticeably changed their tune. The 24-odd men and women running for the Democratic presidential nomination would like us to believe that they are preventing an American apocalypse. The picture they paint of this country is one of chiliastic decline, of spoliation, drug addiction, crime, debt, unemployment, alienation, random cruelty visited upon the weak, and other miseries. It's not far off from Trump's picture of "American carnage."

The Democrats' newfound willingness to engage with reality is a good thing, because telling the truth always is. Does it also bode well for them next November? It is true Trump long ago mastered the language of doom that Democrats are just now discovering. But as an incumbent, he is expected to run a re-election campaign focused mainly on his successes, real or imaginary. If he really has forestalled the final ruin of the American republic, he will have to explain what role, for example, cutting Jeff Bezos' taxes played in this. If he hasn't, and the Democrats are right about how bad things really are, Trump is a failure who was never up to the job of being president in the first place. The challenger with the best chance of winning in 2020 will be the one who can exploit this rhetorical catch-22 effectively.

President Tim Ryan, here we come?

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