— Brenden Gallagher
If you were expecting fireworks, you would have been better off watching a rerun of last week’s Empire. The Democratic debate played out exactly as you would have expected, and as the Hillary camp likely wanted it: calm, civil, and with no question who was in control. While other candidates stumbled over tough questions, stretched to clarify their voting records, and strained to distance themselves from the Woman Who Would Be Queen, Hillary was poised, rehearsed, and even managed to tell a few jokes.
After the first debate, this is still Hillary’s race to lose, but she didn’t do so well as to make it feel like this isn’t still a race. Bernie Sanders continued to preach his core message of economic equality and social justice with the conviction and hair of a roadside preacher. Martin O’Malley slyly attempted to wedge himself into the ever-shrinking space on Hillary’s right and Bernie’s left. Lincoln Chaffee’s Ichabod Crane lookin’ ass seemed to be running for youth pastor instead of President, but he made you feel bad for him like you feel bad for a guy eating alone at a restaurant. Jim Webb came off as equally unelectable as Chafee, but at least we left afraid he might kill us if we date his daughter.
The first debate left the field looking much like we’d expected, and it seems likely that the only major change before the next debate will be that Chaffee and Webb run out of money and agree to star in an odd couple reality show where they travel the country trying to explain why their voting records don’t match their current opinions.
Let’s enjoy this debate before we starting talking about spin-offs and sequels. Let’s take a look at the key moments from the first meeting of the Democratic candidates.
We Are Not Denmark
The central questions of the Democratic campaign is whether Hillary is too far in the pocket of financial interests to please the far left, and whether Bernie is too radical a socialist to appeal to the moderates in the party. This was addressed almost immediately when Bernie was asked point blank to defend his socialism.
Sanders gave a careful response, outlining his goal of economic equality. Then he explained that he would like to see our economic system look more like “Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.”
Hillary knows that won’t play at NASCAR races and sports bars: her husband used to own that turf. She saw an opening and pounced, saying, “We are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America, and it is our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism.”
I Come From A Rural State
Unfortunately for Bernie Sanders, the debate led with the one issue where he has been to the right of his competitors: gun control. Clinton and O’Malley have made gun control cornerstone issues of their campaign, and they took this opportunity to let Sanders have it. Sanders, from rural, pro-gun Vermont, has a history of voting against gun legislation like the Brady Bill, though he has said that as President, he would be in favor of gun reforms.
When pressed by Clinton and O’Malley, he said, “I come from a rural state, and the views on gun control in urban states are different than in rural states whether we like it or not.”
Though this is statistically true, it doesn’t play well with a democratic base with the recent Oregon school shooting fresh in their minds.
That Hillary Shade
From the very beginning of the debate, Hillary made it clear that she is going for a kinder, gentler, funnier approach than she managed in her 2008 loss. For the most part, Hillary managed to keep her tendency towards eye-rolling shade throwing in check, but there were a few moments when she couldn’t resist dropping the bomb. Our personal favorite shade toss came after O’Malley criticized her and she came back with.
“I was so pleased when Governor O’Malley ENDORSED me for President in 2008.”
“He’s Not Around Right Now To Talk To.”
If there was one viral star of the night, it was Jim Webb, but it was for all of the wrong reasons. As far as viral stars go, Grumpy Cat might actually now be more electable. Though Webb has significant military, civic, and private sector accomplishments to his name, he came off like the guy sitting at the other end of the bar cursing bitterly into his beer about the good old days. He complained numerous times about not getting enough time to speak. He made strange attempts to boast about his foreign policy acumen like, “Try to get the Tripoli Airport. You can’t do it!” And he topped it all off by answering a light-hearted question from Anderson Cooper about what enemy he’s most proud of with, “I would have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me but he’s not around right now to talk to.”
Cue the uncomfortable laughter.
“Enough With the Damn Emails”
Though the candidates generally agree on a number of issues, they concur wholeheartedly on the issue of Hillary Clinton’s private emails (on a server that she maintained while Secretary of State). Sanders had perhaps his most aging uncle moment of the night in a night of aging uncle moments when he cried out, “Enough with the damn emails!”
“Black Lives Matter”
It looked like there were awkward moments on the horizon when black law student Sterling Arthur Wilkins asked “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?” Sanders, whose racial justice platform is the most robust of the Democratic candidates, didn’t hesitate to say “Black lives matter.” What could have been a stark contrast, and a damaging moment for Hillary, was undercut when Anderson Cooper failed to press Hillary with the same question.
It might seem strange that legislation older than your grandmother became one of the most contentious issues of last night’s debate, but that’s exactly what happened. The Glass-Steagall Act kept a wall between banks and securities firms, and was repealed during the Clinton Administration. Several of the candidates, including Clinton, have associations with the repeal of Glass-Steagall.
Clinton deflected questions on the banks by pointing out that insurance companies and other entities were equally to blame for the financial collapse. Lincoln Chafee wasn’t quite so deft. He managed to look incredibly incompetent when he implied that he voted for the repeal because he didn’t understand the bill.
Throughout the night, the debaters were clear about their differences and rarely got heated, and this spirit of civility continued through closing arguments. Rather than attack each other, the candidates took time to encourage voters, motivate change, and appreciate their fellow candidates. Sanders returned to his call for a populist revolution. Hillary pointed out hat she knows how to get things done, even if it means compromise. Martin O’Malley gave a surprisingly poignant speech that called for unity among Democrats and expressed optimism for the future.
We’re a long way from the dust settling in the Democratic primary, but even if Clinton remains the presumptive nominee, the debate among the left will have been one worth having.