It Took Two Years, But John Delaney Finally Got His Debate Moment

"I don't think the Democratic Party should be surprised so many Americans believe yada yada yada."

That was indeed one of the lines thrown out during Tuesday's second round of Democratic debates, and came from none other than spiritual writer Marianne Williamson who manifested a surprising amount of love from the Detroit audience (speaking of love, Williamson again used her closing speech to advocate for spreading more love around the country...). The Seinfeld reference, intended or not, was also a tidy summation of the evening, which gave candidates the time to really debate with—and yell over—one another but still kind of amounted to a whole lot of "yada, yada, yada."

But some candidates managed to rise above the murmur and accomplish their goals.

What we didn't expect was for that roll to include former Congressman and multi-millionaire John Delaney of Maryland. Delaney entered the presidential race way back in 2017 yet is still, somehow, currently polling at less than 1 percent.

But he was bestowed, and sometimes grabbed, a completely unproportionate amount of speaking time—a whopping nine minutes towards the end of the debate, right behind the top three contenders. Throughout the night, he was used as a foil to top-tier candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, calling progressive policy prescriptions "dead on arrival."

It was a do-or-die moment for Delaney, with only 10 candidates set to take the stage for the third debate in September. He needed to prevail or perish, and it appears that he prevailed. But not because of his own actions.

It seems CNN producers likely decided an ongoing theme of the night would be pitting more progressive Democrats against the moderate contingent, and so regularly threw questions the way of the former chief executive, who in turned relished sparring with the night's drawcards.

But of the top tier, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders returned to form Tuesday night. (In fact, he declared himself the winner on Twitter just moments after the podiums darkened--gotta love that confidence.) Sanders got what he needed from the night: redemption. After his lackluster June debate performance, where he largely seemed to hold back and was attacked for being too old, the 2016 Democratic candidate nailed many of the night's applause lines.

John Delaney after the debate
Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland congressman John Delaney speaks to the media in the spin room after the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Scott Olson/Getty

"Trump is a pathological liar. I tell the truth," he said to a roaring crowd, and when he was challenged by Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan about the details of Medicare for All he fired back, "I know, I wrote the damn bill." Clearly, Sanders hit a sore spot with Ryan, who appeared terrified to be on the stage and seemed to forget to put his hand over his heart during the national anthem, later told the longest-serving Independent in the Senate that he didn't have to yell so much.

Sanders, who is polling in second place behind former Vice President Joe Biden with about 18 percent of the vote right now, had one other job Tuesday: differentiate himself from fellow progressive candidate Senator Warren by proving his Democratic-Socialist credentials are the best path to the Oval Office.

He didn't quite hit the mark on that one.

"Elizabeth is absolutely right," he remarked when Warren slammed President Donald Trump on his trade policy. When it comes to healthcare reform, sure, he wrote the damn bill, but Sanders and Warren support the same policy. Over the evening, both advocated for stronger union protections, canceling student debt and restructuring the economy to better fight climate change.

In fact, it was Warren who did his job for him. The former professor is a self-declared capitalist and she explained that her belief in private ownership means "I know how to fight [big banks] and I know how to win."

She again owned the debate stage deftly defending her radical policies that many consider too idealistic. When Delaney called her ideas pie-in-the-sky, she shot back, "I don't know why anyone goes through the trouble of running for president to tell us what we can't do and what we shouldn't fight for." It was a firing shot from a candidate who is often considered more of a policy wonk than a sharp tongue.

While the best performers illustrated a larger issue within the party (think "The Squad" vs. establishment Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi), the moderate candidates on the debate stage were not exactly household names. By pitting Delaney against primary leaders like Warren and Sanders, CNN is likely going to give him a big boost in name recognition and potentially in the polls.

John Delaney
Democratic presidential candidate former Maryland congressman John Delaney speaks while former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 30, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. Justin Sullivan/Getty

It's an interesting strategy considering CNN head Jeff Zucker has repeatedly said he regrets airing so many of President Donald Trump's campaign rallies during the 2016 elections and falling into "false equivalency" coverage. And it appears that the cable news channel may repeat the same mistakes by giving low-polling, moderate Democrats like John Delaney an elevated platform in order to create an adversary in the rest of the 2020 field.

But overall Warren and Sanders worked together well to defend their ideas and both came out on top. Teamwork!

And in a polished performance sure to endear him to more voters, particularly those holding the checkbooks, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg grew tired of the juxtaposition, attempting to end the ongoing moderate versus progressive bend to the debates. "If we embrace a far-left agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists. If we embrace a conservative agenda, they're going to say we're a bunch of crazy socialists," he said. "So let's stand up for the right policy, go up there, and defend it."

Unfortunately, he pleas went ignored.

It wasn't all terrible, the heavily-produced debate (complete with a 15-minute introduction which felt like the lead-in to a football game) lent itself to more substantive answers and debate between the candidates on issues of healthcare, immigration and the climate crisis, rather than the typical horse race coverage that Americans have rejected.

It was a good night for Warren, Sanders, Delaney and Buttigieg. For others, things... weren't so good.

Like many a cover star before him, Beto O'Rourke is going through a rough patch. Despite a comeback tour campaign relaunch, the former Texas congressman has been stalling in both the polls and fundraising efforts, and he needed to knock it out of the park Tuesday night. He didn't. We're still trying to figure out what it is O'Rourke is bringing to the field, but this isn't his last call. He's already qualified to participate in the September debates. When those arrive, we'll probably say something like: "Beto needs a big moment," because that's what we said this time around and what we said before the June debates. So far, his moments have been pretty milquetoast.

Oh, and Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan also failed to make any sort of impression at all. His only standout moment in the debate was when he hushed Sanders. The question must be asked: Why is he still running?

Right in the middle were Amy Klobuchar (though at the top of the middle), Steve Bullock and John Hickenlooper who all elicited a giant "meh" with their performances.

Since the Democratic National Committee decided to air this debate at the same time as the Bachelorette finale, we'll rate it this way: Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and Delaney get their roses. Klobuchar, Bullock, Hickenlooper and Williamson also get roses but we're going to call their names last and play dramatic music to show that things are tense and the decision wasn't easy. Ryan and O'Rourke, we're sorry and it's been great, but it's time to pack your bags and leave the mansion.

The graphic below, provided by Statista, highlights search interest for the Democratic candidates before and after the debate.

Democratic debate search trend statista
Search interest for the Democratic candidates before and after the July 30, 2019 debate. Statista

This article was updated to include an infographic.