Saturday night's Democratic debate simply lacked the energy and excitement of a Republican Party affair. But those who did interrupt their weekends to tune in were treated to a substantive exchange of ideas, mostly between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (thought at one point Clinton was missing from the stage), in which the two played the appointed roles as standard-bearers for the centrist and liberal wings of the Democratic Party.
Fundamentally, though, the debate lacked a certain amount of focus because too many of the key players weren't really all that interested in the primary contest that serves as the nominal subject of the debate. The moderators were largely more interested in delivering a hard-hitting interview of Clinton than in facilitating an argument between the candidates and Clinton herself seemed to be mostly looking ahead to the general election. It's nobody's fault, exactly, that the Democratic race just isn't very close but the fact of the matter is that it isn't very close and that makes for a much worse television program than the wide open Republican field.
Still, debates continue to be among the most important campaign events out there and Saturday's slog produced wins and losses for a range of figures.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Here is a pro-tip for neophytes in the audience — Hillary Clinton is going to be the Democratic nominee. If a few major labor unions had joined the Communications Workers in risking the Wrath of Clinton by endorsing Sanders, I think he would qualify as a long-shot but as things stand he is a no-shot. That means Clinton's goals in these debates are pretty simple: she needs to avoid gaffes, and she wants to evade without committing herself to anything that will be too problematic in a general election.
She pulled it off. When baited by David Muir and Bernie Sanders about whether corporate America "loves" her, Clinton stood up for her progressive record while also standing up for the notion that progressive economic policy would be win-win, including for business. It was a passable primary campaign answer, but most of all she delivered an answer that set her up for a general election rather than getting sucked into a leftier-than-thou bidding war with Sanders.
More than that, she once again reminded the world that debating is a format in which she excels. Clinton is not the greatest orator in contemporary politics, but she is among the wonkiest of major politicians — certainly the wonkiest one on the stage — and she's an extremely effective public speaker for a wonk. Back and forth exchanges over things like the difference between debt-free college and tuition-free college highlighted her virtues as a politician far better than any setpiece speech or 30-second ad would.
Winner: Donald Trump
All three Democrats took various opportunities to define themselves in terms of opposition to Donald Trump. Martin O'Malley called him a fascist (experts say that's wrong), Bernie Sanders said his economic agenda is needed to stop the rise of Trumpism, and Clinton said Trump has become a prime ISIS recruiting tool. No other Republican candidate was even named.
Hillary has clearly decided to make Trump her general election opponent Smart strategy for her; good (primary race) news for him #DemDebate— Frank Luntz (@FrankLuntz) December 20, 2015
Trump is good for ratings and Democrats hate Trump, so this is a reasonable enough strategy. But it's also great news for Trump, whose campaign is fueled by attention and who is currently seeking the votes of Republican primary voters who hate Hillary Clinton. The more Democrats denounce him, the stronger he becomes. Which given the havoc his nomination would wreak on the GOP, suits Democrats just fine.
Loser: Residents of low-lying coastal areas
While the moderators found time to discuss who would pick out china and flowers in the White House, they did not manage to find time for a question on climate change just one week after the signing of a historic international accord on climate change.
Most of the Republican debates have ignored climate change, too, but moderators of those affairs at least have the excuse that Republican Party voters and party actors don't care about climate change. Democrats actually do care, quite a bit, with many leading party figures — including Barack Obama — defining it as one of the most significant issues facing the country. Simply ignoring it entirely was bizarre and unforgivable.
Loser: America's political journalists
The flipside of the debate being a solution to Saturday night traffic woes is that a lot of political journalists had to spend their Saturday nights creating this fine content for you to consume.
It was kind of a bummer. The good news is the Vox crew had some tacos delivered. The bad news is the tacos arrived late.
Loser: Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley was a good governor of Maryland, a nice guy, and a thoughtful politician. But throughout this campaign he has struggled to make anyone care that he exists. Even on a three-person stage, that problem persisted Saturday night. As just a small example of his troubles, he clearly planned on making a big splash early in the debate by denouncing "bickering" between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over the data breach issue even though there was no bickering visible on stage.
Martin O'Malley clearly planned this talking point complaining about "bickering" and didn't revise when there was no bickering.— Catherine Rampell (@crampell) December 20, 2015
Later he tried to define himself as "the first post-9/11 mayor, the first post-9/11 governor" and nobody understood what he meant.
Anyone know what O’Malley meant when he said he was the first post-9/11 mayor and first post-9/11 governor?? What?— Amanda Terkel (@aterkel) December 20, 2015
Meanwhile, he threw just enough sharp elbows at Hillary Clinton to put himself outside of contention for any kind of job in the Clinton administration.