The seventh Democratic debate of the 2016 season took place against the backdrop of a landslide Bernie Sanders victory in the New Hampshire primary and an electrifying sixth debate that took place just before voters went to the polls. Compared with the previous showdown, it was a much lower-key affair, with more moderator involvement and less boring down on particular points of disagreement.
Both candidates, ultimately, delivered on their key themes, played up their key strengths, and likely pleased their key supporters.
And they fought not just over who would win the nomination but also to a considerable degree over how we should understand both the future and the past of the Democratic Party. So here are three players who ended up in a stronger position than they were in before the debate, as well as three who wound up weaker.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
She didn't score any knockout blows or hit any home runs Thursday night, but the reality is that she didn't need to.
Playing small ball and successfully turning the debate into a series of tedious, hard-to-follow exchanges is good enough for the candidate who currently enjoys a large lead in national polls. Recall that outside of the hothouse of internet commentary, most Democrats currently have a favorable view of both candidates, and a large swath of Democrats still don't know who Sanders is.
Nothing happened Thursday night that would make a person who previously liked Clinton stop liking her, and if this was your first exposure to That Guy Who Is Running Against Hillary Clinton you wouldn't have been blown away.
Sanders is coming off a very good 10-day run that must be leaving the candidate and his senior staff feeling both exhilarated and exhausted. The result was a dangerously complacent debate performance.
Despite his stellar fundraising and New Hampshire performance, Sanders is still a major underdog who has a limited amount of time to change the dynamic before delegates start getting assigned very quickly. Sanders did nothing to assuage related doubts about his electability and his grasp of foreign policy matters, and didn't add anything new to his well-known critique of Clinton.
Winner: Black Lives Matter
Twenty, 10, or even two years ago it would be almost impossible to imagine national politicians dedicating as much time and attention to the problem of police violence as we heard onstage Thursday night.
The politics of looking anti-police or soft on crime were just too perilous. Things are different now.
Sanders promised to "end overpolicing in African-American neighborhoods" and proclaimed himself "sick and tired of seeing videos on television of unarmed people — often African Americans — shot by police officers."
Meanwhile, Clinton spoke of the "dark side" of law enforcement and repeatedly referred to "systemic racism."
The context is that stumping for black votes is a necessity for any Democrat trying to win primaries in South Carolina and other Southern states. And the Black Lives Matter activist community has successfully pushed the issue to the absolute top of the agenda in terms of black politics.
That's a remarkable achievement. The underlying issue in which the consequences of heavy-handed policing fall disproportionately on black communities is decades (if not centuries) old, but the entire issue was completely invisible in the 2004 and 2008 primary cycles. It was very much not invisible last night.
Winner: Barack Obama
Clinton ran against Obama in a bitter campaign in 2008, and many of Sanders's most fervent supporters think he's a weak-kneed neoliberal sellout tool of Wall Street. But no hostile sentiments were evident from either candidate on Thursday night.
On the contrary, Clinton made a vigorous defense of the Obama legacy — and suggestions that Sanders is less than fully committed to it — the centerpiece of her argument. Early on she defined herself as an advocate of "President Obama's principal accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act," and slammed Sanders for jeopardizing it.
The essential strategy, seen several times during the debate — but most crucially during an exchange over Wall Street — was to use Obama as a human shield.
Did Sanders want to say that Obama was corrupt because he received campaign contributions from the financial sector? When Sanders says we need a political revolution, does that mean he thinks Obama was a failure?
Sanders largely refused to take the bait, declining to criticize Obama even when that forced him to blunt his criticisms of Clinton. That even the left opposition within the Democratic Party doesn't want to voice clear criticisms of the president makes Obama a clear winner.
His fans don't like to admit it, but every single Republican in Washington is dying to run against Bernie Sanders.
The problem isn't really the specifics of socialism or this or that. It's the basic reality that Sanders has clearly positioned himself to the left of Obama and voters want a candidate who is to the right of Obama.
That doesn't mean Sanders is hopeless. Voters still think Republicans are too conservative, and any Democrat has a chance of winning by arguing that the country needs a check on congressional Republicans, but it gives Sanders a baseline weakness as a candidate relatively to Clinton. Clinton's strong performance is bad news for those hoping to face off against him in November.
Loser: Wall Street
A handful of Democrat-friendly Wall Street types and Wall Street–friendly Democratic operatives types have recently expressed to me a fuzzy yearning for Clinton to push back against Sanders's line that "the business model of Wall Street is fraud." Selfishly, they would like pushback because they find this argument offensive, and while they are confident Sanders's bank-busting legislation won't be enacted, they don't like to see their personal reputations dragged through the mud.
More high-mindedly, they make the case that Clinton can't defend her Wall Street fundraising unless she can establish the argument that investment banks and hedge funds are legitimate players in the American economy, just like farms, ice cream companies, quaint B&Bs, and whatever else it is they do in Vermont.
It didn't happen. On finance, Clinton defended herself from Sanders's attacks by just further punching the banking industry. She argued that Sanders's proposals don't target a wide enough range of institutions and that Sanders himself has voted at least once for financial deregulation. Hundreds of D-leaning donors, bundlers, and lobbyists are left feeling lonely tonight.
Loser: Henry Kissinger
For the first time in the Democratic campaign, Bernie Sanders had a foreign policy exchange where he looked loose, comfortable, and confident. The issue, somewhat surprisingly, was former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Clinton had name-dropped and cited as a friend and a source of advice on several occasions.
"I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country," Sanders said. "I'm proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend."
Clinton seemed a little surprised to be facing this line of argument, and rather than defend Kissinger on the merits of the various charges leveled against him, simply deflected with the notion that he is knowledgeable about China. A whole new generation of young Sanders-loving liberals are likely to find themselves checking out books like Gary Bass's The Blood Telegram to find out about Kissinger's involvement in Pakistan's brutal military campaign against Bangladesh.