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.