Last Night’s Debate: Democrats Vs. CNN

Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take ... Democratic presidential candidates from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher) MORE LESS
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When the first Democratic presidential debate got underway last night, you got the immediate impression that the CNN organizers were determined to dash the expectation that it would be a less fractious event than the network’s Republican debate last month. Moderator Anderson Cooper, normally the most irenic of talking heads, got in touch with his inner Jake Tapper and began barking harsh criticisms at the candidates. But with few exceptions during the long contest, the five donkeys on the stage did not rise to the bait, and as a result the event often turned into Democrats versus CNN.

That was made most obvious by the signature moment of the debate: Bernie Sanders shouting at Cooper that the American people are “tired of hearing about [HRC’s] damn emails.” As a stand-in for the media hounds insisting on maximum coverage of the damn emails, Cooper gamely tried to press the issue, to no avail.

For their own part, the candidates did not go after each other much at all (HRC challenging Sanders’ gun record was an exception, as was Chafee calling HRC unqualified by her poor judgment on Iraq—his campaign’s one attention-grabbing talking point). On the two subjects (emails aside) where Clinton was vulnerable, her challengers got too far down in the weeds to score points. As a result, if you don’t understand the significance of a “no-fly zone” in Syria, or know a lot about banking regulations, it all became mush. Somebody really needs to tell Martin O’Malley not to talk about “Glass-Steagall” unless he explains what that hoary law and its repeal mean in practical terms.

So there were two main takeaways from this debate.

First, there just wasn’t the sense of a party in crisis that Republicans have projected again and again in the two debates, the two “undercard” events, and many exchanges on the campaign trail. Virtually no GOP presidential candidates have a kind word to say about their party’s leadership in Washington. Even challenged directly to distinguish themselves from Barack Obama, the five candidates were careful not to criticize him. In the Republican field, one candidate has called another a “egomaniacal madman”; another routinely calls several of his rivals “losers”; and the candidate most beloved of party elites is disliked by a majority of rank-and-file voters. There’s nothing like that on the Democratic side at present.

Second, the absence of clear-cut policy clash in the Democratic debate accentuated the importance of style points, and as a result, Clinton and Sanders both pleased their supporters.

Clinton was very fluid and even-tempered, and only raised her voice when identifying with women and bashing Republicans. Her answer to Chafee’s challenge on Iraq, noting that Obama trusted her judgment enough to make her Secretary of State right from the start, may have put that perpetually thorny issue to rest for good.

Sanders was in a word defiant, and if you shared his outrage at inequality and corporate power his tone was appropriate. But otherwise, his rising volume and abundant gesticulations came across as over-the-top. Since this was Sanders’ debut on a truly national change, one could make the argument that he benefited most from “being himself.” But in disappointing the lick-lipping MSM/GOP ghouls expecting her to screw up and invite Joe Biden into the contest, Clinton probably gained the most strategically.

As for the others—well, there was no “breakthrough” for O’Malley, Webb or Chafee. Webb spent far too much time complaining about the attention he was getting from the moderator; this neutralized his senior statesman persona and made him seem an angry old man with surprisingly conservative views. Chafee has an irrepressible goofiness that also undercuts his long resume; he may have won the Honest Abe award for admitting his vote for repealing Glass-Steagall was a matter of ignorantly following the herd, but it did not convey gravitas.

Martin O’Malley did himself no harm last night, but seemed to be pitching himself as another long-resume candidate taking on a frontrunner who’s been constantly in the national spotlight for more than two decades and a challenger who’s sort of the Ron Paul of the Left, forever representing progressive dissent against Democratic centrism. O’Malley’s direct pitch to Milllennials in his closing statement was his strongest moment.

So the contest moves on, presumably to future debates with less contentious formats, and each day it gives less reason for media folk to yap about pulling other candidates into the race.

Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.

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  1. I wanted to like Webb. He’s a decorated, Purple Heart veteran and a democrat against a sea of pseudo tough guy, war-first republicans. However he came across as our McCain: curmudgeonly, and seemingly steering every question awkwardly toward his service. Chaffee kept wandering from his podium and bringing up his ‘no scandal’ past essentially turning himself into Fox News.

  2. Great summary. We definitely watched the same debate. Thanks, Ed.

  3. Avatar for ljb860 ljb860 says:

    Don’t agree, this ED KILGORE comes across as being REPUG biased…

  4. Avatar for jep07 jep07 says:

    “forever representing progressive dissent against Democratic centrism”

    a subtle change that might be more accrate would be

    “forever representing centrist dissent against Democratic conservatism”

    Bernie’s stated platform is not nearly as far left as it has been posed by the inherently, obsessively conservative Big Money machine that owns both parties at the top.

    That may just be because the fulcrum of our entire political lever has moved so far to the right during the Tea era, Bernie’s common sense, essentially centrist ideas are now viewed as liberal extremism.

    I realize this is an exercise in incremental semantics, but I really do think my version is much more accurate. I know I regularly criticize the “lefties” among us for their persistent attempts at reminding us all just how distant we really are from Marxism, and anything else that might be considered real “socialism.”

    But that debate was a good example of how the fulcrum has been moved so far to the right, we perceive some very vital and inevitable historic transitions, like admitting immigrants, raising the minimum wage, providing healthcare and social security, and (yes, I’ll go there) even eliminating poverty altogether, as some sort of gateway to perpetual communism, instead of seeing those achievements as the best reward of a successful hybrid economy.

    The Democrats struggle in the center, not on the left, while the Republicans toil over the far right, in what has become a mud bath in a manure pit.

    There’s been NOTHING akin to “socialism” even discussed thus far, and those who try to relegate single-payer and minimum wage discussions to some sort of extreme left-wing status have been caught up in that profound rightward movement of the fulcrum of our political philosophy.

  5. Moderator Anderson Cooper, normally the most irenic of talking heads, got in touch with his inner Jake Tapper and began barking harsh criticisms at the candidates.

    Irenic, wow I had to google that, not because I couldn’t remember what it meant, but because I’d never heard of it. And even the coment spell checker was suggesting ironic.

    Republicans have worked themselves into such a far right corner. I’m glad to see the Democrats staying on the issues and proposing what I, as a fairly left of center Democrat, feel are decent answers. That said I am a “conservative” on many issue like living within our means, savings wild and natural resources, trying to wean ourselves off using a lot of energy and onto renewable resources etc. It’s sad to me that none of those “conservative” ideas ever seem to get noticed by Republicans, the party of the EPA.

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