Sunday's Democratic debate was notable not for who was onstage, but for who was in the audience. The debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders took place in Flint, Michigan — a city whose water supply has been contaminated with shocking amounts of lead, where local officials dismissed and covered up the water problems, and where residents were lied to and ignored.
Tonight, residents of Flint told Clinton and Sanders about their struggles with the water crisis, as well as preexisting issues from underemployment to public education, and demanded to know what they would do. That isn't something that typically happens on national television, and it was for that reason remarkable.
But it was also, of course, a Democratic presidential debate — in which the candidates tried to improve their positions for the rest of the campaign to come. So here's who ended tonight's debate having accomplished their objectives, and who ended up falling short.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders's supporters have long argued that the candidate's relative weakness with nonwhite voters (and particularly African-American voters) has a simple cause: name recognition. Once they learn who he is and what he stands for, the argument goes, they'll get on board.
Tonight's debate showed there's some merit to that argument. The heavily black audience responded extremely well to Sanders, especially during the first section of the debate, which dealt with Flint in particular. Where Clinton came off as a levelheaded technocrat — the person she thinks you'd want in charge in a crisis — Sanders's debate answers reflected the same anger and betrayal heard in questions from the audience.
Racially speaking, Sanders did make one medium-size misstep: appearing to assume that African Americans lived in "the ghetto." But in general, he appeared more comfortable speaking about race and racism than he ever has before, and his answers were as strong as they've ever been.
Sanders didn't land any major new attacks on Clinton. And it's unlikely that a single debate is going to eliminate his deficit with African-American voters, much less spur him to catch Clinton on delegates (something that is looking increasingly impossible). But anyone who did tune in to Bernie Sanders for the first time tonight got a very good first impression.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Look. We know it is ridiculous to say that in a two-candidate debate, both candidates are winners. But think of it this way: The two candidates' goals were totally different.
Sanders needed to demonstrate that he could fully fold his racial justice message into his economic populism and become the candidate of the progressive movement as a whole. Doing this was important not just to his 2016 candidacy, but to his future as a standard-bearer for progressivism.
Clinton, meanwhile, is the increasingly prohibitive favorite for the nomination. The delegate math simply favors her tremendously. So the most important thing she could do in tonight's debate vis-à-vis Bernie Sanders was avoid saying anything so tremendously, galactically stupid that she would sabotage her own success.
Instead, Clinton needed to have a debate with Sanders that both engaged Sanders and would be appealing to a general election audience. She managed to do both of those things by emphasizing her pragmatism, attention to detail, and problem-solving skills — the sort of sub-ideological hypercompetence she loves to project.
That made it harder for her to connect with the Flint audience during the first section of the debate. But it allowed her to play to her strengths when arguing with Sanders over the auto bailout. Ironically, Sanders did a better job of delivering the message that "sometimes you have to vote for the bad things in a bill to get the good things" when he was defending his vote on the crime bill than Clinton did when she was defending her vote on the bailout — but it's a better argument for Clinton's candidacy than it is for Sanders's.
Winner: Flint, Michigan
Hillary Clinton made a huge promise to a mother in Flint who wanted to know what Clinton would do as president to solve Flint's lead crisis. Clinton's answer is good news for Flint and for the communities all over the United States grappling with lead poisoning that Flint represents. Clinton vowed to eliminate lead in soil, paint, and water in the US within five years.
This plan could easily cost a trillion dollars to accomplish. Just getting rid of lead pipes would cost $290 billion, according to a recent estimate. Still, the response highlighted how the Flint water crisis has put a new focus on the devastating effects of lead on children's health.
The remedies Clinton and Sanders endorsed for the problems in Flint were less sweeping: more federal funding, monitoring from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an investigation into what the Environmental Protection Agency knew and when. But that's partly because the damage from lead poisoning is irreversible, and so what can be done for the people of Flint is therefore limited as well.
Still, the importance placed on Flint was a sharp contrast with Thursday's Republican debate in nearby Detroit, where Sen. Marco Rubio briefly answered one question about the crisis late in the evening by arguing that it shouldn't be "politicized" since no one had intended to poison the water on purpose.
Merely keeping Flint in the national spotlight is a win for the city as well. It's been five months since the scope of the lead poisoning crisis was first revealed, and three months since it became a story of broad national interest. Hosting the debate in Flint and pressing the candidates with questions about what they'd do about lead poisoning keeps Flint front and center. However limited the federal remedies are, the chance of them happening will drop the moment the nation moves on to the next tragedy or outrage.
Loser: Don Lemon
One of the most interesting arguments in the Democratic primary has been about the best approach to addressing institutional oppression of African Americans in the United States. CNN in general, and Don Lemon in particular, had an opportunity to get into this argument. Not only did they miss that opportunity, but they reverted back to a much more superficial argument over racism that the Democratic Party has recently moved past.
Sanders's approach to systemic racism is consistent with the economic populism of his campaign. He's argued that the problems facing the black poor are an intense version of the problems facing struggling families of all races around the country — and sees expanding youth employment, for example, as one way to end mass incarceration.
Clinton, on the other hand, has recently emphasized systemic racism as a different kind of oppression, independent of economic inequality. During a speech in Harlem in February, she made a statement that could sum up the last month of her campaign: "We face a complex set of economic, social, and political challenges. They are intersectional, they are reinforcing, and we have got to take them all on."
CNN was interested in questions about the candidates' personal feelings and experiences. First, a Flint resident asked what experiences Sanders had that helped him "understand the mindset of other cultures."
Then Don Lemon asked Clinton what her personal racial blind spots were, with a reference to "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," the (kind of racist) song from the Broadway musical Avenue Q. Then when she gave an answer that talked about broader forms of racism, he asked the question again.
It was one of the more awkward examples we've seen during this campaign of the axiom that the questions debate moderators think are "tough" are often bad questions. Hillary Clinton's personal racial blind spots, or Bernie Sanders's personal experiences with other cultures, aren't things they can answer during a presidential debate without putting their feet in their mouths.
Both Clinton and Sanders, to their credit, responded to Lemon's questions with better answers than the questions deserved. The answers they gave were reminders of the entire premise of the argument between the two candidates, which CNN and Lemon totally missed: the real problem with racism in America is not the particular feelings in people's hearts, but the systemic biases and inequalities that put people of color at a disadvantage even when no one is personally being mean to them.
Loser: Republican presidential candidates
There were no dick jokes in this debate.
It's an easy shot to take at the Republican field. It's so easy, in fact, that Clinton made it herself (admittedly, without mentioning the dick jokes): "compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week."
But look. It's true. For anyone who watched both this debate and Thursday's Republican debate, the contrast between the two was remarkable. Clinton and Sanders went after each other on their policies and their records, but managed to avoid ad hominem attacks.
To be fair to the Republican field and the Fox News anchors who moderated Thursday's debate, there were substantive issues discussed there too! It's just that no one remembers those, because Donald Trump started the debate by talking about his penis, and his subsequent bullying (and Marco Rubio's weird and pathetic attempts to emulate said bullying) dominated the rest of the debate.
It's not the fault of Ted Cruz or John Kasich that Thursday night's circus happened. And in fairness, the only people who watched both debates are political insiders anyway. But the juxtaposition of that debate and this one simply looks bad for the Republican Party and its candidates.