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Some First Thoughts on the Democratic Debate

AP Photo / Mic Smith

As for this debate, as I noted a few times, even when they're fighting, I find myself liking Clinton and Sanders even more than I already do. (As you could probably see in my running commentary I have little and diminishing patience for Martin O'Malley's continued presence in these debates.) One of my big questions going into tonight was whether Clinton would really bring her recent kind of hard-charging, aggressive, almost cartoonish attacks on Sanders into the debate hall. Mostly she didn't. She hit hard at a few points at the beginning. But her critiques, especially on health care were more subtle and refined and sounded less desperate than recent headlines generated by her campaign.

On the other side of the equation, I think she's somewhat defused by Sanders himself. He simply doesn't have that kind of brass knuckle politics in him. Even when he gets his hackles up a bit, every response from him is inherently defusing. There's less charge in the air, less animus after he speaks than before. And I mean all this in both the good and bad senses in which you might understand what I'm saying. At a very basic level, just temperamentally, he doesn't seem to have time for this stuff.

As I mentioned in my wrap up of the Republican debate, debates lead to elections and elections are only zero-sum exercises. So everybody can't win. If everyone does great it's a wash and meaningless - a win for the frontrunner. I thought Hillary Clinton did very well in this debate. She was quick on her feet, deeply knowledgable. She shows herself as unflappable. Several times I heard her answering questions in ways that were subtle, knowledgable and showed a tendency not to go for the political answer but to highlight complexities in highly politicized questions which are often ignored. I was impressed.

But Sanders did well too. His words and his very manner communicate a fundamental decency and impatience with bullshit which is deeply appealing. If you believe the country needs deep and even radical reform, particularly on economic policy, he is your guy. One of the things that makes him such a good messenger for this message is that while his message is radical and he speaks about "revolutionary" change there's little in the man that seems impulsive, hasty or trigger happy. There's a certain temperamental caution which balances that deep-seated belief that only thorough-going change can address the nation problems.

So who won? Who helped themselves more? On that front, candidly, I'm not sure. There's clearly something organic taking shape in Iowa and New Hampshire which is very pro-Sanders. Folks in those states are already saturated by the campaign. I don't know how much this debate will affect them. I'm just not sure. For those just watching this debate somewhat in isolation, for the national audience, I think Clinton helped herself more than Sanders, but only in relative terms (i.e., I don't think he did badly at all. I just think she helped herself somewhat more than he did.) And that's not terribly surprising because she seems to have helped herself in each of the debates so far.

For her, too bad there aren't more debates or ones scheduled when there are people around to watch.