The First Democratic Presidential Debate

Democratic debate photo from USAToday.com

I resisted the urge to live-tweet last night’s debate because I actually wanted to listen and pay attention, not miss something because I was busy impressing myself with an ephemeral bit of snark that I had to condense into 140 characters.

Here are some random thoughts. No thesis, no through line — just some random reflections on last night:

It was nauseating the way CNN promoted and framed the debate as some sort of bloodsport. I was pleased to see that everyone on stage generally comported themselves with dignity and refused to attack each other, unlike a certain other party I could mention.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper made a big deal at the beginning of the program about the joint venture with Facebook: “Thousands of people stepped inside to record their questions for the candidates on video. Millions more have weighed in on Facebook.” Thousands and millions, and CNN used, what, three questions from Facebook? Wow.

Interesting that Bernie Sanders didn’t actually introduce himself during the introductions — the other four did, even Hillary. I can see his staffers now: Everyone knows who you are, Bernie — just go for the jugular right away. Everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is, too, but she managed to find ten seconds to give us a frame for who she is.  Bernie’s gambit was interesting, but a tiny bit off-putting to me.

James Webb had a pretty terrible night. There is a school of thought that says, “When in the hole, attack the debate itself,” (see Al Gore sighing in George W. Bush’s ear, circa 2000) but Webb came across as petulant, not defiant. Which is weird, given his background and life experiences. He had one of the best, saddest lines of the night, though: “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution’s going to come.” It’s just true, man, and therein lies the collapse of Sanders’s attempt. By his own admission, Sanders needs “millions” of Americans to rise up and overthrow the current political regime in order for his candidacy to have any meaning. What sign is there that anything remotely like that is even close to happening?

Not sure what Webb was doing on that stage. He clearly thought that, given the reputations of the other four candidates, he could stake out the conservative Democrat position and grab those votes. But he miscalculated — Democrats want a conservative option in the party this year as badly as Republicans want a third Obama term.

Lincoln Chafee needs to rethink his position on gun safety…because he shot himself in the foot. That plaintive “My dad had died!” when asked about his vote on Glass-Steagal was just awful. I understood his point, but he bungled making it. There’s a way to do it and a way not to do it; Chafee went in the latter direction. All he needed to say was, “You know, Anderson, that was my first vote as a Senator. I don’t know if you know this, but I first joined the Senate when I was appointed to hold my father’s seat after he passed away. I was young and I cast a really bad vote under tough circumstances. Just an awful call on my part. I learned from that immediately and since then blah blah blah.” He wasn’t ready to answer that question. He was badly prepped. Which, of course, says absolutely zip about his ability to lead the country, but in our sound-bite world, it doesn’t matter.

I thought it was incredibly poor form for moderator Anderson Cooper to snark at Chafee’s “You’re looking at a block of granite” line. Let the guy actually say something before you jump on him.

Similarly, I was disappointed by Cooper referencing — on air — the off-air lateness of Clinton’s return to the stage, apparently from a bathroom break. Do I also need to know how many times O’Malley shook his dangle before flushing? Or that Sanders’s prostate slowed him down at the urinal? It bothered me, too, that Clinton then felt that she had to joke about it — “You know, it does take me a little longer. That’s all I can say.” — though I suppose on her team, they’re high-fiving another “She’s human!” moment that polls say they need.

Martin O’Malley impressed me, but then again he would — he’s my hometown hero, after all. Notice how obvious it is that he’s running for Veep, not for President. When give ample opportunity (multiple times!) to attack frontrunner Clinton, he demurred, choosing instead to broaden the issue. Trust me, Cooper was dying to have O’Malley jump all over Clinton, but O’Malley didn’t. When asked about Benghazi, for example, he said:

I think there’s lessons to be learned from Benghazi. And those lessons are that we need to do a much better job as a nation of having human intelligence on the ground so that we know who the emerging next generation leaders are that are coming up to replace a dictator when his time on this planet ends.

Doesn’t mention Clinton at all. Turns the focused question into a general one. Genius political move. And done very deftly. On a couple of occasions, he did take Clinton to task, but in a gentle way, as though apologetic. Sorry, Madame Secretary, but I have to do this so it’s not too obvious that I want to be your running mate. Political maneuvering at its finest. I raise a crab cake and a Natty Bo to you, Martin O’Malley, and God willing, I will vote for you for president in 2024.

Sanders had a rough moment during the Vladimir Putin question where he clearly had lost the thread of the conversation, saying, “Pardon me?” when Cooper tried to bring him in. He foundered for a moment and then — astonishingly — Cooper tossed him a lifeline. When Sanders said, “Well, I think Mr. Putin is going to regret what he is doing,” and then continued to sputter, “I think that when he gets into that…” Cooper interrupted to say, “He doesn’t seem to be the type of guy to regret a lot.” An absolutely meaningless non sequitur, but watching the debate, it clearly gave Sanders a moment to collect his thoughts and something to react against. Weird. I don’t think Cooper was necessarily trying to help Sanders, but broadcast personalities like Anderson Cooper just can’t resist inserting themselves into the moment — it’s what they do. And it’s why someone like Anderson Cooper shouldn’t moderate a debate.

I’ve saved Hillary for last because there’s actually little to say. She came across as more relaxed than during the Obama debates eight years ago, probably a function of some pretty intense prep, but also probably just a function of her actually being more relaxed. Which is nice for her because this election stuff is crazy and getting crazier every day. Good on her for being able to grin through it.

She came into the debate as the leader in the polls and the long-time presumptive nominee, and I don’t think anything changed last night. Sanders needed to convince people that he was credible, but Webb deflated that balloon handily and almost by accident. Chafee and Webb needed to impress people — they failed miserably. O’Malley just needed to show that he could string sentences together and look vice-presidential; mission accomplished.

Clinton needed to maintain an aura of invincibility while not seeming smug about it. That is a hard thing to do, and I think she nailed it. Americans like confidence but despise entitlement, and the two are easy to confuse. Especially on TV. And especially — let’s be honest — in the way we perceive women. There were a few stumbles on her part, some answers I didn’t like, but guess what? Not since Al Gore has there been a candidate for national office that I pretty much agreed with 100%. Hillary Clinton has her foibles and her flaws, but that’s only to say that she’s basically like almost everyone else I’ve ever voted for.

I can’t imagine Webb or Chafee sticking this out much longer. They had their shot and they blew it. O’Malley will stick around as long as he can, hoping to vacuum up any support from the dropouts and use that meager leverage to get a convention spot and, hopefully, the Veep slot.

Which leaves Sanders and Clinton, Clinton and Sanders. As I indicated above, Sanders just has no hope of being president. His victory scenario requires a tectonic shift in the way the electorate thinks, and despite his impressive crowds, I just don’t see that happening.

Clinton went into this debate as The One to Beat, and she emerged the same…only stronger. There is an ongoing prejudice against her as “strident” and “humorless” and “stiff” and — like I said before — “entitled,” and I think she defused any lingering remnants of those notions last night with a very natural, relaxed (again!), and confident performance.

She has some opponents with interesting ideas and she has the sort of baggage one has after living a public life for decades. Last night, she dealt with both handily. I would say she impressed me, but the fact is, she performed precisely as I expected her to. By dint of her experience and longevity, Hillary Clinton has reached that rarified political air where excellence is the minimal requirement, perfection preferred. She excelled last night — no one’s perfect.

 

(Debate quotations from the transcript at Time.com. Image from USAToday.com.)

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