We finally got to watch the Democratic presidential candidates layeth the smack down in their first debate on Tuesday. It was definitely one for the books, and I wanted to put together a stream of consciousness/sophisticated breakdown of the debate as a whole. I’m going to try to break this up by candidate, since there are only five, but first I’ll start off with just some general impressions.
The debate as a whole was fantastic. The crowd was very calm and respectful, the candidates didn’t spend too much time interrupting each other, and the dialogue was substantive. I can’t believe the difference between the Democratic and Republican debates. We’ve had two debates for the GOP nomination, and both were filled with rhetoric about immigrants that I found appalling, along with entire conversations about shutting down the government over Planned Parenthood, and lengthy arguments about how best to roll back President Obama’s accomplishments on day one of a Republican-led administration. But by contrast, the Democrats on Tuesday talked about welfare reform, income inequality, common sense gun safety legislation, criminal justice reform, and major changes to the education system.
That’s not to say Republicans didn’t have some of these discussions as well, but I felt their debates were characterized by three things: negative rhetoric about immigration, Trump, and Planned Parenthood. And while two of those are important issues, there wasn’t much substantive debate over solutions. It was all “we need to force Obama to veto defunding Planned Parenthood” and “Mr. Trump’s comments about immigrants were such and such.” I didn’t feel like any of them genuinely care about fixing the immigration problem, something that is surely resonating with Hispanic voters as well. This might just be me nitpicking, but the Democratic debate (which was much shorter than the marathon-length three-hour Republican debate a few weeks ago) just seemed much more realistic and substantive than the others we’ve seen from the right. That may be due to the number of candidates running for the GOP nod, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. Now, let’s talk about the candidates.
Hillary Clinton was good. I’m not a huge fan of her, but Tuesday proved once again that she is a great speaker. Love or hate her, nobody can deny that she’s quick on her feet, and she can turn an attack into a positive note very easily. She was questioned about her email controversy several times, and at one point she just completely declined to comment (see that exchange in the video above). This underscores, I think, one of the central messages that she’s been struggling to get out: voters hate noise. They hate “scandals” that aren’t really scandals. They hate “investigations” that drag on for years and turn up nothing, yet still somehow become more important than most of the issues we need to be talking about.
When Bernie Sanders supported the notion that Americans are tired of hearing about her emails, Clinton couldn’t stop smiling. Not only was this affirmation that her emails aren’t all that important to middle and lower-class voters who are living paycheck to paycheck, it also came from her biggest opponent. Bernie and Hillary have been going neck-and-neck in the polls, with the former drawing larger crowds and raising just as much, if not more money than the former Secretary of State. While it was by no means an endorsement of her campaign or her policies, it went over very well with the crowd, and I think Hillary should be able to build upon that moving forward. The House Benghazi Committee is slowly falling apart at the seams, so it won’t be long before that’s not a valid argument that can be used against her. Overall, I think the debate cleared the air on a few things that were haunting Clinton, and voters got (or at least I got) a sense that she’s trying to push the noise away and focus on what the people in this country care about.
On the issues, Hillary did a great job of staying on message. She defended her positions very well and she hardly stuttered or froze at all. A lot of people forget that, more often than not, being a great speaker gets you noticed more than having great policy. President Obama was an underdog in 2008, but his to-the-point speaking style gained him an amazing advantage against (ironically) Clinton. I think she learned from that and honed her speaking skills over the last few years, and it showed on Tuesday. One of her problems is that voters don’t find her authentic. She’s sort of a liberal Mitt Romney to a lot of people, and the debate was her big chance to change that perception. I don’t think she was necessarily completely successful, but she did give a few great stories along the way that made me feel like she’s closer to being an average American than she is to being a corporate mongrel. Now, does that mean I’ll vote for her? No. Well, let me rephrase that. It doesn’t mean that I’ll vote for her based on that one aspect. I’m an undecided voter, and it’s going to take a long time before I pick a candidate who matches up with my values and earns my vote. No candidate on either side of the aisle has done that yet, and I don’t see it happening before we get to the end of the primaries.
I want to say that Bernie Sanders surprised me, but he did exactly as well as I expected him to do. That is to say, he was fantastic. Despite speaking a total of four minutes less than Clinton (who got the most speaking time at just over 30 minutes), Sanders conveyed this attitude of authenticity that you just can’t teach. He is to Hillary Clinton as Barack Obama was to Mitt Romney, as far as relatability goes. Where Hillary’s answers reeked of preparation and scripts, Bernie’s were clearly genuine and created on-the-spot. Whether or not you agree with Bernie’s policy suggestions or his stances on the issues, it’s clear to almost everyone that he is what he says he is. Period. He’s not a corporate sellout, and he doesn’t have a Super PAC. He hasn’t flopped on many issues (if any), and he’s been saying the same things consistently for over thirty years. The guy is legit. All polls and media spin aside, I’d say Bernie Sanders handily won the debate. Why? Let me explain.
Remember how I mentioned that Obama’s speaking style helped him trump (no pun intended) Clinton in 2008? Ironically, Bernie Sanders might do the same thing, but through matters of policy rather than matters of prose. His speaking style isn’t as well-rounded as hers, but he is drawing record-breaking crowds everywhere he goes, and he’s definitely struck a nerve with the Democratic voter base that I don’t think Hillary can even see, much less touch. His responses on questions of economics and income inequality were spot on (like the one in the video above), and every one of them got the best reactions from the crowd. He may be the most liberal candidate on that stage, but he’s also got one of the biggest bases of support out of any candidate in either party.
What’s funny to me is that Bernie’s supporters are mostly young people (20-somethings, most of them in college or just getting their families started), yet the Vermont Senator is 73 years old. He’s the oldest candidate in the entire race for president. In fact, if elected, he would actually be the oldest elected president in U.S. history. Yet his main chunk of voters comes in the form of people young enough to be his grandchildren. Bernie is walking, talking proof that the “old white man” label given to Republicans isn’t necessarily one based on age or race. Bernie is by definition an old white man, but he’s getting record numbers of donations from young people. This might be due to his free college plan, or to the fact that younger generations are almost entirely liberal now. But either way, Bernie has excited the Democratic base in a way that Hillary could only dream of doing. His debate performance only proved that.
Martin O’Malley was more ambitious than I thought he would be, despite his folksy campaign videos and lack of aggressiveness on the campaign trail. Since announcing his candidacy, I’ve hardly heard from him. As soon as Hillary and Bernie jumped into the race, it’s like Martin just vanished. I know he’s been campaigning in battleground states and holding rallies, but he hasn’t made many appearances on major networks, and he’s just sort of become a quiet contender. The debate was his chance to turn all that around and remind people why he’s running. I noticed throughout the debate that he was a very big proponent of “I did this already” on almost every progressive issue, and that’s probably the smartest thing he did all night. O’Malley has a strong record as Baltimore Mayor and governor of Maryland to draw on for questions of experience, but he’s also been at the forefront of some very progressive policies over the last decade. In a Democratic primary debate, having an actual progressive record is nearly priceless for a candidate, especially one who hasn’t been in the spotlight thanks to the towering Bernie/Hilllary feud.
O’Malley had the third longest total speaking time at 16 minutes (compared to Clinton at over 30 and Chafee at just 9 minutes), but I think he utilized his time very well. He stayed on message and continued to tout his record in Maryland. One of the advantages he has is that he never served in Congress, something that no other Democratic candidate can say. Since voter perceptions of Congress are at an all-time low (last time I checked, cockroaches had a higher approval rating than the legislative body), he can play on his record as an executive. That may also hurt him in the long run, because voters will wonder if he can work with Congress despite never serving in either house of it. As Trump and Carson ride the anti-establishment wave, O’Malley could strike a somewhat similar nerve when it comes to congressmen running for president. If Americans see Congress as being so broken (rightfully so), that can hold negative connotations for anyone hailing from Congress. The exceptions on the left appear to be Hillary, who made so little of an impact that most people forget she was even a Senator, and Bernie, who is so far left-wing that he excites the base (his consistently liberal voting record doesn’t hurt, either). On the Republican side, the numbers tell the story: the top three candidates right now are Trump, Carson, and Bush. The top two (Trump & Carson) have never served in public office, and the third is a governor who has never served a day in Congress. This may seem like a minor detail, but I think voters are creating negative associations with congressmen running for office, and Martin O’Malley is definitely jumping on that.
Lincoln Chaffee was just sort of “mehh” if I had to put a word to it. He wasn’t very exciting, granted he didn’t get nearly as much speaking time as Clinton or Sanders. But his answers were very short, and he just seemed very distant throughout the entire debate. I also noticed (again, this is a nitpicky thing) that he was very eager to answer every question. Almost too eager. Chafee reminded me of that kid in class who studied for three days straight and got no sleep, and is just waiting on the teacher to call on him so he can prove to the class that he’s actually really smart. As a candidate for president, you want to have a positive attitude when you’re in a debate. That being said, you can take it too far, and Chafee definitely did just that. He had this weird sense of urgency that made me feel like he was secretly drooling as he waited for Anderson Cooper to finish the question so he could give his answer. In a lot of ways, I think Lincoln Chafee wants the presidency more than most candidates, but he just doesn’t have the policy record or support base to get there. But his eagerness is definitely coming out, and it’s definitely creepy.
Jim Webb. Ahhh, Jim. Silly, old, cranky Jim. Why are you still here? Jim Webb is a real-life, human-sized version of Grumpy as a presidential candidate. I don’t think I saw him smile once during the whole debate. He just exudes “angry” in every sense of the word. He spent probably half of his speaking time complaining about not getting enough speaking time. While he turned out to be right about not getting equal time, he actually got more time than Chafee, who didn’t complain at all. Webb is already hoisting the sore loser flag, and he hasn’t even withdrawn from the race yet. If I had to diagnose his feelings in Internet terms, I’d say he has a terrible case of butthurt.
On top of his generally displeased demeanor, his answers were awful. He failed to even truly answer half the questions posed to him, and the answers he did give were probably the most scripted out of any candidate. Every answer he gave also sounded like it was coming from a man with a gun to his head. They all felt forced, as if he’s a Republican in Democratic clothing who winces every time he says “marriage equality” or “affirmative action.” He either doesn’t have any endearing qualities that will connect him with most voters, or he’s failing miserably at showing those in public. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for him at all. My money is on Jim Webb to drop out of the race first. He’s polling at the bottom almost everywhere, and his debate performance likely left his few existing supporters disappointed. I doubt he’ll last into January.
I’d like to take just a minute to talk about someone on that stage who wasn’t a candidate: Anderson Cooper. He was phenomenal as the moderator for the debate. His questions were clear and touched on issues that voters care about. He called out candidates for not actually answering a question, and he gave every candidate a chance to respond when their name was mentioned. Despite Clinton somehow getting three times as much speaking time as Chaffee, I think overall the debate was fair and helped answer a lot of voter questions early in the campaign. Cooper upheld the journalistic principles on that stage just like he’s done on his CNN show every day for the past few years. I’m generally not a big fan of CNN, but Anderson Cooper is probably the best journalist/anchor they have there. As an aspiring journalist, I look to him as a strong example of what I want to be one day. Hats off to you, Anderson.
And that’s a wrap! My sources for most of the information are listed below, just in case you want a more thorough breakdown of the debate. I had a lot of fun watching and rambling about this debate, and I will be tuning in to the next Republican debate on October 28th. Keep your browsers locked here for more coverage and opinions!