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The surprisingly entertaining first Democratic debate, explained

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Lacking the star power of a Donald Trump, a sprawling cast of characters, or even an especially competitive nominating contest, the 2015 Democratic Party debate on CNN risked underwhelming. The primary on the Democratic side has really been a two-candidate race between Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite, and challenger Bernie Sanders, who is hoping to pull off a 1972-esque upset. But the stage was crowded with three also-rans — former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, former Sen. and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, none of whom had obtained any traction at all prior to the debate.

In the end, the debate was in many ways surprisingly entertaining. Webb fondly remembered having killed a man, Sanders yelled a lot (including at one point yelling about the inefficacy of yelling as a strategy for political change), and Chafee became the butt of dozens of jokes for a hilariously inept effort to beg off responsibility for a 1999 bank regulation vote on the grounds that he was new in the Senate and his dad had just died.

But most of all, Clinton reminded Democrats why they like her. With the attention focused on policy rather than email, she showed off her superior range and depth of knowledge and repeatedly reminded the party faithful of her long record as a fighter for the causes she believes in. Sanders held his own and will continue to be a hero to his fan base, but did nothing to really hurt her or expand his appeal.

Clinton is not facing first-rate competition

Clinton's greatest achievement in the 2015 primary hasn't been anything she's done against the candidates running against her. It's been preventing other, more formidable politicians from running against her at all. These four guys simply aren't close to being the second, third, fourth, and fifth most serious alternatives to Clinton that the Democratic Party has to offer — and it showed.

Chafee's groan-inducing opening statement, featuring an awkward smile and a zero-charisma recitation of his résumé. Webb couldn't even muster a proper résumé, simply referring — in a prepared opening statement, mind you — to a career of "accomplishing different things" before seeming to have difficulty recalling the names of all of his daughters. Sanders's fiery message is well-received by the party's base, but not only is his delivery odd, the debate revealed real limits to his range of competency. He clearly stumbled through two efforts to state his (by no means wrong) view that Russia's aggression in Syria is an overreach that Vladimir Putin will regret. He's also clearly more comfortable discussing broad general themes like the superiority of the Nordic social model than delving into specifics. When Clinton got into the weeds of financial regulation policy to argue that actually her plan was tougher than Sanders's, he seemed almost shocked and then pivoted back to his demand to break up the largest banks without addressing Clinton's actual argument about shadow banks.

One could easily imagine an alternate reality in which Clinton had that exchange with the more charismatic, more policy-fluent Elizabeth Warren instead of Sanders. A reality in which Clinton and Warren were joined on the stage by the likes of Joe Biden and Deval Patrick. Clinton would likely prevail against that kind of field, but it would be a considerably more difficult task than tackling her actual bunch of opponents.

Anderson Cooper tried and failed to bring Clinton down

Anderson Cooper shares the apparently widespread view among American journalists that despite her decades in public life, Clinton is just teetering on the brink of total collapse if faced with one more personal jab.

"Will you say anything to get elected?" he asked, to open the debate.

When Clinton tried to pivot the discussion to policy, Cooper scolded her. Later, he pressed her on Benghazi and broke in with a disdainful "with all due respect" after she tried to dismiss the committee as a partisan witch hunt.

But in the context of a Democratic debate, this kind of pressure simply reminds the party rank and file of all the time they have spent in the trenches with the Clintons. She rebutted accusations of opportunism with the line that she's "a progressive who likes to get things done."

Sanders leapt in to defend her on the emails, earning massive applause for "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," before pivoting to Cooper and saying, "Enough of the emails, lets talk about the issues."

Then Cooper threw to Chafee, who took the bait, suggesting Clinton had done something shady as secretary of state: "I think we need somebody with the best and ethical standards as our next president. That's how I feel."

Cooper turned to Clinton: "Secretary Clinton, do you want to respond?"

Clinton: "No."

Martin O'Malley looked like he was running for VP

The former governor of Maryland was an X factor heading into the debate. A serious, seasoned politician who's harbored national aspirations for a long time, he's completely failed to gain any traction thus far in the campaign. The debate was a big chance for him to make a name for himself, and in theory he could have opened up a new front for anti-Clinton sentiment.

But he largely ducked the chance to attract attention by driving hard against the frontrunner. Instead, he saved his most withering attacks for Sanders, recounting the story of a Colorado family whose child died in the Aurora massacre and who went on to sue a man who'd sold 4,000 rounds of ammunition to the killer. Not only did they lose the case, but "they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees" in part due to a pro-gun bill that Sanders voted for. O'Malley also cited the NRA as the enemy he is most proud of, once again focusing attention on Sanders's weakest issue.

In his closing statement, O'Malley struck a broad theme of party unity, arguing that in contrast to the GOP debates "nobody on this stage denigrated women, nobody on this stage made racist remarks."

It read, broadly, like a de facto campaign to serve as Clinton's VP or in her Cabinet, and further enhanced the sense that Clinton was simply outclassing the opposition.

Clinton and Sanders had an interesting exchange on banks

When the debate briefly took a turn toward Wall Street regulation, Clinton took a surprising tack and argued that her plan to curb financial risk is actually tougher than Bernie Sanders's mantra of breaking up the big banks. She offered a reasonable argument on this point, noting that many troubles in the financial system came from institutions that were either not especially big (Lehman Brothers) or not even banks (AIG) and thus could slip the grasp of Sanders's rather crude plan.

Sanders did not reply to this in detail or mount a specific defense of his emphasis on size per se. Instead, reflecting his overall view of the ultimate significance of political economy above all else, he went lofty with the idea that what's fundamentally needed is systematic change to curb the power of finance over the political system. As he later put it, "the power of corporate America is so great" that we need "a political revolution when millions of people come together and say we need a government to work for all of us and not just billionaires."

This is the fundamental difference between the two. Clinton is a detail-oriented, practical-minded literalist, while Sanders is much more of a big-picture guy. On the stump, which is all about passion and oratory, this makes Sanders considerably more compelling. But in the context of a reasonably friendly debate, Clinton seemed comfortable and always on point.

Jim Webb whined a lot about time

Early in the debate, after a span in which the conversation had been ignoring him, Webb complained, "I've been trying to talk for 10 minutes." Later, after a lengthy exchange between Sanders and Clinton, the conversation eventually turned to Webb who immediately began to use his limited time to whine about time: "I hope I get that kind of time here."

And it kept happening. "This hasn't been equal time," he later protested, before observing, "I know I'm out of time."

Democrats talked about a lot of issues

Despite Cooper's occasional frustration that candidates weren't spending enough time on meta questions about electability, the overall debate was very wonky and issue-heavy. The candidates got into everything from the use of warrants in surveillance to expanding Social Security to the applicability of the Nordic social model to the United States to background checks for gun purchasers to the merits of a legally mandatory separation of government and commercial banking.

This is because — in a dramatic contrast from the Republican field — the candidates overwhelmingly preferred to keep things wonky. Even the sideshow candidates Webb and Chafee were clearly there to talk about their ideas and push their pet issues, not to throw bombs and sell books. The deadly dull O'Malley's idea of a good time is calling for "a modern Glass-Steagall." The moderators didn't ask about climate change, but the candidates repeatedly returned to it, addressing the issue from diplomatic as well as regulatory angles.

The policy-heavy dynamic ultimately played directly into Clinton's hand. On a stage of earnest, policy-oriented pols, she was simply the best briefed and the best able to fluently address a seemingly endless array of issues. She effortlessly pivoted from criminal justice reform to early childhood education to foreign policy to trade. Everyone else had several issues on which they were strong (except maybe Chafee, who just seems lame), but Clinton was rock-solid across the board.

Some Clinton answers might not hold up

Clinton was extremely effective during the debate at shoring up her left flank against obvious lines of attack. But in many cases, she did this with answers that nimbler, more skilled candidates could have exploited.

When Cooper accused her of having changed positions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, for example, she replied that while it is true that "I did say when I was secretary of state three years ago that I hoped it would be the gold standard," she simply rejects it now because it turns out not to be a gold standard. This is simply not an accurate account of her past position or of how the agreement has changed.

Similarly, she wriggled out of an Iraq question by observing that Barack Obama trusted her judgment enough to ask her to serve as secretary of state. In fact, in that capacity she consistently found herself on the hawkish edge of the Obama administration, and Sanders is much closer to where Obama is overall. But even as her opponents repeatedly hit her on Iraq, they simply lacked the fluency in the issues necessary to situate Clinton relative to the rest of the party.

Clinton, in short, isn't a flawless candidate, nor did she deliver a flawless debate performance. But she doesn't need to be flawless to win — she just needs to be better than the opposition. And against a relatively weak field, she dominated.