This debate wasn’t quite as outrageous as the Republican showdowns, but it was serious and substantive. There wasn’t much disagreement on the issues, but we saw what matters most to the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton performed at an extremely high level throughout, and I doubt there were many Democrats anywhere who disagreed with anything she said. She faced sky-high expectations, and she met them. Most of the time she was running against the GOP rather than the other candidates — a good strategy for a frontrunner — but she was willing to challenge Bernie Sanders at time. She debated aggressively and assertively, when she could have played it safe. (I don’t see any opening for a Joe Biden candidacy after tonight, but I’ve never thought he has much of a rationale for running). She never missed an opportunity to point to her potential to be the first woman president, and (mostly) stayed loyal to President Obama — two points that can only help her with Democratic voters.
Sanders got the chance to make his pitch to a national audience, but those voters also got to learn about his record on gun control, which belies his claim of being a progressive purist on every issue. While he was in his element on economics, railing against "millionaires and billionaires," he seemed painfully uncomfortable discussing foreign policy. His constant shouting in an anachronistic Brooklyn accent certainly provided a contrast to Hillary’s smooth, confident, ready-for-the-Oval-Office demeanor. If you liked Sanders, you probably liked what you saw. Otherwise, I don’t know how many voters want to hear an extended lecture on the virtues of democratic socialism.
The other three candidates mostly failed to exploit the opportunity they had been given. Martin O’Malley was fine but unmemorable. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee seemed out of place onstage. Is Webb the first presidential contender since Andrew Jackson to boast of personally killing a man?
Sanders seemed like the ranty-but-entertaining sociology professor from freshman year. O’Malley acted like a future HUD Secretary. Webb seemed like a sour old Marine obsessed with personal slights and the Red Chinese threat. Chafee acted like a character in Monty Python’s "Upper-Class Twit of the Year" contest. Clinton behaved like the next president of the United States.
The fight for the Democratic nomination has a very different dynamic than the race on the Republican side does. The Republican establishment is trying to find an acceptable candidate to coordinate on. That lack of consensus is reflected in the political endorsement data compiled by FiveThirtyEight. There is no clear frontrunner in party endorsements, and there have been much fewer total endorsements than at this time in past cycles.
On the Democratic side, there is a clear frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, who has almost all Democratic politician endorsements, more than any other candidate at this point in any election cycle back through 1984. With Clinton’s large financial and organizational advantages, it is not clear if the challengers can do anything in televised debates to prevent her from eventually winning the nomination.
But even beyond her advantages going in, Clinton showed additional strengths in this debate. Her years of experience in national politics really show in debate settings. She appears well-informed, is never flustered, and has answers that please the Democratic crowd.
Last night’s debate also illustrates why it's hard for other candidates to use topics like her email scandal, Benghazi, or the memory of 1990s Clinton scandals against her. The problem is that for a large portion of Democratic voters, activists and politicians, the Clintons are synonymous with the Democratic Party brand. Many engaged Democrats are used to defending the Clintons against perceived unfair attacks/scandals/investigations from the media and Republicans. Hillary Clinton demonstrated that it is very easy to pivot from questions about the email scandal into attacks on how the media and Republicans have handled the story.
Similarly, she can say that the enemy she is proudest of is "the Republicans" and provoke cheers from the crowd. Even engaged Democrats who are predisposed not to support Clinton largely feel a partisan instinct to defend the Clintons from what they perceive as years of unfair attacks. Clinton is good at priming feelings of "us against them," in which she and her husband epitomize the Democratic Party fighting against outside threats. Whether things like the email scandal will hurt her in the general election remains to be seen. But this debate shows how unlikely it is that the scandal will propel another candidate to overtake her for the Democratic nomination.
The top issues in the Democratic debate are core issues for the party —just like we saw in the Republican debates. The media is making a lot of hay over the stark differences between the issues that parties raise in their debates and how different they are, but it’s perfectly logical. The issues that each party rallies around and makes its priority are actually what make a political party. So we saw Democrats talking about income inequality, climate change, poverty, and guns, while Republicans are talking about immigration, security, taxes, and jobs — and that’s okay.
Generally, no one is watching these things but political science professors, political wonks, and people working on the campaigns, so it’s reasonable to assume that these candidates are somewhat known to their audience, but the campaigns are pretending that the rest of the country is watching and to that end most of the candidates are unknown to the general public. Here are some off-the-cuff reactions:
Strong performance. Fiery.
Polished. Knowledgeable. Comes across as the professional, compared with others (for better or worse).
Made the most attacks against GOP. Running like a frontrunner and looking to the general election.
Made a not-so-veiled reference to the fact that she urinates differently than her rivals. Now, that’s authentic. In several instances, she played the "gender card," reminding people that she would be the first woman president.
Fiery. Strong performance.
Transparent and raw. Populist appeal.
Uses swear words correctly. (Does "damn" count anymore?)
Stumbled some. Comes across as a bit goofy. He has dreamy blue eyes, but unlike the current occupant of the White House, his smile does not make him look more credible.
Complained too much about debate administration. Comes across as a very serious military man who may not be all together well-rounded.
Well-spoken. Non-combative. But also seems slightly slow, muted, or unable to show passion and enthusiasm. He likely has some passion, and maybe it’s just the contrast with Bernie Sanders makes it harder to see, but his voice literally sounds a bit weak.
A candidate debate generally won’t shake up a race much, but it presents both opportunities and dangers. It’s an opportunity for relatively unknown candidates to be seen by a larger audience, potentially winning them important allies among the most active groups of primary voters. It poses dangers to frontrunners, who may be drawn into arguments or defenses of their records and end up saying things that embarrass their campaigns.
Seen in this light, the debate was an opportunity for Chafee, Webb, and O’Malley, who have been polling near zero since they’re not well-known and haven’t been getting much media attention. For Chafee, that opportunity was clearly wasted. One of his only memorable statements was his defense of his own vote for the 1999 Glass-Steagall repeal when he was a US senator, noting that he was new to the job and really didn’t know what he was doing, so he just went along with everyone else. This is not a good way to win supporters. Webb was largely ignored during the debate, and when he spoke up, it was largely an odd series of disconnected statements that made viewers wonder why he was running as a Democrat. His quip about killing the North Vietnamese soldier who threw a grenade at him likely would have won some applause at a Republican debate, but it got a chilly response at this event. Of the bottom tier of Democratic candidates, only O’Malley did himself any good. He came off as very prepared and poised, got in some good points on a range of policies, and gave a strong closing statement sure to excite Democratic activists. While his presidential campaign isn’t likely to go anywhere, he surely didn’t do himself any harm, and he may have endeared himself to the ultimate nominee.
I’d call Sanders’s performance somewhat of a disappointment. Sanders has honed a very strong stump speech that greatly appeals to the Democratic base while raising issues that are often ignored in political discourse. That stump speech didn’t translate easily into debate language. He stumbled a bit with his presentation, and the other candidates hit him hard on gun control, an issue of great importance to the audience. That said, his mention of climate change as a great national security threat distinguished him among the candidates and may have been his strongest moment, although his exasperated plea to quit talking about Clinton’s emails was great and probably did both him and Clinton some good.
The debate probably presented the most danger to Clinton. As the frontrunner by just about any measure we have, she was the natural target of the other candidates, and she could have easily been drawn into making foolish defenses of her record or petty attacks on the others. She didn’t fall into those traps. It would have been a reasonable strategy for her to say as little as possible, but she didn’t go that route, either, instead giving strong statements about gun control, education, the economy, abortion rights, etc., while reminding the audience that their main opponent was the Republicans. She’s always been a strong debater, and tonight was no exception. I doubt Clinton converted too many Sanders supporters tonight, but she may have reassured them that if (when) his campaign shuts its doors, she’ll be a faithful enough advocate for their concerns.
Can we talk about Lincoln Chafee for a minute?
Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Clinton the political dynasty question. Haven’t we had enough Clintons?
He should have asked Chafee. I am sure Chafee has earned a lot on his own, but as he reminded us last night, his career in national politics started when he was appointed by the governor to his father’s Senate seat. And apparently, by his own explanation, he wasn’t quite ready for primetime. Incumbency advantage and name recognition would have kept him there, and later even helped him land his father’s former seat as governor.
I’m always irritated by this question, because of course Hillary Clinton (and Jeb Bush, and George W. Bush) have benefited from their family connections. But they aren’t being handed the nomination because of it. For so many professions, they say it’s not what you know but whom you know. If you have family in politics, you can get both. The job of people hiring those with a family history is to separate those who are skilled themselves from those who are merely benefiting from their name. Clinton can make a case for being the former, but Chafee looks like the latter.
Primary debates are crowded affairs, because we want to be inclusive, and there are no good criteria for separating those who are seriously in contention from those who just want the attention. The Republican side is so large because of that. The Democratic side should have only two or three people this cycle, since most of the most qualified Democrats have stepped aside to allow Clinton to run. But then we also have people like Chafee, who has only about 10 milligrams of Democrat in him but is allowed on the stage because everyone is too polite to tell him no.
There's nothing wrong with that, I suppose. The contest was already fairly focused on the Clinton-Sanders divide even with Chafee on the stage. The media and the political actors have a way of focusing on what matters. But if you think people should earn their way to the White House, Clinton is not the one you ask that of.
All politics is compromise.
The story on Sanders versus Clinton, which Clinton even articulated last night, is that Clinton wants what Sanders wants, mostly, but she is strategic about what can actually be accomplished in politics. Sanders (and, importantly, his supporters) don’t want to compromise.
But that’s exactly what he said we need to do on gun control. Rural states, he argues, will never go along with gun control policies, so you have to find a way to meet in the middle.
Compromise is at the heart of party politics. But Sanders defenders might ask themselves why it’s not also a good strategy on economic policy, where large parts of the electorate are even more opposed to his approach. (Defenders might argue that his economic policies actually would clear Congress, and gun control proves he compromises when necessary. I’ll let the reader decide on that one.)
Yesterday I raised three reasons why watching the debate was pointless, and three reasons to watch anyway. Here’s how the real debate stacked up to my predictions about what would and wouldn’t happen:
Meaningful agenda items with cross-party support and attracting new voters to the Democratic fold
These are both difficult to assess from our current vantage point. But I think it’s probably safe to say that there weren’t too many lines aimed at groups that have yet to join the Democratic coalition. Clinton talked about mass incarceration as a bipartisan issue — but she also listed "the Republicans" among the enemies of whom she was most proud.
Challenges to the frontrunner
What we saw last night strongly underscored the point about the limited potential for this field to challenge Clinton. Sanders communicated his points of view. Webb, Chafee, and O’Malley just highlighted the difference between politician who are ready for national politics and those who aren't. (More about that below)
Regarding the possibilities for learning about Clinton herself, well, I can’t say that new information came to light. But she had one of her better television moments that I can remember when she spoke about parental leave. Her remarks there brought together her experience as a mother and as a driven lawyer in a way that seemed natural and hammered home an important policy point. It’s rare, I think, to see her present a point that weaves her experience as a woman together with her professional experience in a way that doesn’t make either one feel forced. Her other references to wanting to be the first woman president didn’t quite land. But her personal experience gave life to her policy point on the leave question, and illustrated how the party is facing what it would mean to follow through on the commitments of feminism and the changing role of women in society.
Signs of the Democrats’ new ideas
If I had to pick a winner from tonight’s Democratic debate, it would be the 1960s. The subject of the Vietnam War came up a number of times, between Jim Webb’s service in that conflict and Bernie Sanders’s application for conscientious objector status. (Webb’s measured response to a question about whether Sanders was qualified to be commander in chief was perhaps overshadowed by his later comment about the "soldier who threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around to talk right now.") The implications of Vietnam and Iraq weighed heavily on the discussions of foreign policy. And the questions about Sanders’s ideology came straight out of the Cold War era.
This isn’t to say there was nothing new. The party has now embraced LGBT rights as a core issue — no more waffling about civil unions — and the presence of Sanders on the stage moved the overall discussion on foreign policy to the left.
A subtle difference emerged between the way O’Malley referred to immigration and the way that Clinton and Sanders talked about it. They all seemed to be more or less on the same page. But O’Malley talked about the way the nation benefits from immigrants, while Sanders and Clinton talked about the well-being of immigrants themselves — of providing health care for children, and of bringing people out of the shadows. Given O’Malley’s status (or lack thereof) in the race, it may not matter much. But it struck me as a difference with possible implications — whether we approach the immigration issue from the perspective of the nation or from a humanitarian perspective could have very different implications for the goals and priorities of a reform plan.
Democracy within parties
The presence of the minor candidates really detracted from the quality of the debate, which I thought was actually very substantive at times when it was between Clinton and Sanders. Chafee was weird. Webb complained about not having enough time. It slowed the pace of the debate and diverted attention and energy from the main exchanges. Basically, it was like watching the "kids’ table" debate and the main event at the same time. In the Republican debates, John Kasich and Carly Fiorina are both unlikely to win the nomination, but they’ve both added to the overall quality of the debates, speaking eloquently on important issues. Furthermore, there have been complaints among Democrats about the number of debates and about access to them. The logic behind this agitation is clear enough, but when greater inclusion really doesn’t bring a more substantively interesting debate, or challenge dominant candidates in a meaningful way, that doesn’t make a very strong case for a more open approach.
Sanders’s "enough about the emails" comment and subsequent handshake with Clinton was arguably the moment of the night. When I said that debates celebrate peaceful disagreement and legitimate opposition, that’s what I meant.