Last night, the Democratic Party finally held a presidential debate. It was, at least while candidates not named Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were talking, a fantastic debate. Bernie Sanders introduced himself to the nation; Hillary Clinton gave the impression of being an actual human being and Martin O’Malley showed that he will make an excellent Secretary of Transportation.
The five candidates on stage made it through two hours of debating without promising a war with Russia, alienating any ethnic minorities, denying science or attacking each others’ physical appearance. Bernie Sanders got one of the loudest applause lines of the night for rightly pointing out that Hillary Clinton’s private email server is a silly issue and that there are more important things to talk about. Clinton hit home in reminding viewers that the Republican Party isn’t serious about railing against “big government” when their current top legislative priority is attacking a women’s health organization.
Journalists watching the debate think Hillary won; snap polls on the Internet, social media engagement and Google traffic say Sanders won. Both of those declarations of a winner come with caveats: Journalists totally missed Ben Carson’s emergence following the first debate, and Bernie Sanders has outperformed on Internet metrics throughout his entire campaign, which complicates his strong showing in unscientific, Internet-based polls.
And let’s not forget O’Malley, who stood to gain the most from national exposure and showed why he’s been going after the Democratic National Committee for not scheduling more debates. He has nowhere to go but up, and he should get some kind of bounce coming off of his performance — at least, he deserves to.
Put another way, every serious* candidate on stage turned in a strong performance. Record and policy disagreements aside, Hillary Clinton was far and away the best debater and most skilled politician on the stage, and that matters for her. Her primary goal last night was to calm the Democratic establishment and show that she will, in fact, win the general election. Had she not done so, she’d be met this morning with fresh calls for Joe Biden to enter the race. By being fluid, assertive and prepared to answer questions on her major weaknesses as a candidate — trade, Wall Street and the Iraq War being the three she had no trouble handling — while drawing blood on Sanders’ gun rights record, she accomplished everything she set out to do and more.
Sanders, for his part, struggled out of the gate on gun control and foreign policy but found his footing during the second half, winning an exchange with Clinton when she claimed that her plan to regulate Wall Street was in fact tougher than his. While Clinton is a known commodity, Sanders is still new for a lot of Democrats who don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire. And the more Democrats find out about Sanders, the more they like him.
At the end of the day, the heaviest blows of the night came at the expense of the Republican Party and their slate of candidates. Like Martin O’Malley’s closing statement, which was one of the highlights of the night:
Given the state of the Republican Party and its field of presidential candidates, the clearest winner from last night’s debate is the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, given the chasm of difference between the two parties right now on the basic questions of whether and how government should exist — let alone what it should do — that’s what’s important.
Someone on that debate stage needs to pick the next Supreme Court justices, and last night made me feel much better about the chances of that happening.
*Jim Webb is running for the presidency of West Virginia and I think Lincoln Chafee’s family is going to have a hard time voting for him. They were little more than sideshows during the debate, with Webb eerily grinning after saying he killed a man in Vietnam and Chafee admitting that he didn’t read the first bill he voted for in the Senate. They don’t count as serious candidates, and by the end of the debate the moderators and other candidates had stopped paying attention to them.