The First Democratic Debate, an Overview

Alex Sadler, JHU:

After the two spectacles that Republicans dared call ‘debates’, the bar for Tuesday night’s Democratic debate was not set exceedingly high. Fortunately, the Democrats did not disappoint. Most pundits agree that Hillary Clinton seemed to be a clear winner, but many have been pointing to social media analytics showing that the people clearly favored Bernie Sanders. The media picked Hillary, but the people picked Bernie. Whether you are a Clinton supporter, a Sanders supporter, or one of the ten Lincoln Chafee supporters, Tuesday’s debate showed that the Democratic Party has a lot to look forward to in the upcoming election cycle.


It was refreshing to see a stage where actual ideas were presented and debated, not to mention visible gestures of respect between candidates (see: Clinton/Sanders handshake). Although the candidates were not afraid to go after each other’s policy views, they refrained from personal attacks. It was clear that Bernie Sanders was staying the course of his non-confrontational campaign style when he was asked about Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. While the Vermont Senator could have attacked Secretary Clinton on her controversial email status, he simply stated that he—like a lot of other Americans—was sick of hearing about her emails. Sanders himself said it probably was not the best political move, but it sent a clear message that he plans on running with integrity, an unusual tactic these days. Jim Webb continued the night’s cordiality when moderator Anderson Cooper asked the former Virginia Senator if Sanders’ conscientious objector status gives him credibility to be Commander in Chief. Webb responded quickly and briefly stating that, “as long as they (conscientious objectors) go through the legal process that our country requires I respect that and it would be for the voters to decide whether Senator Sanders or anyone else should be President.” The contrast could not be starker between the two parties when it comes to mutual respect amongst candidates. Perhaps the only personal attack of the night produced the best line of the debate. When Lincoln Chafee questioned Secretary Clinton’s credibility over the email scandal, Cooper asked if she wanted to respond and her two letter response, “no”, received perhaps the loudest applause of the night.

The Two-Person Race Continues

Many Democrats looked forward to the debate in the hopes that one of the three lesser-known candidates would break out and mount a serious challenge to both Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders. Perhaps the candidate with the best chance to break out was former Maryland governor, Martin O’Malley. While O’Malley had a strong debate, it was difficult for him to distinguish himself from Bernie Sanders as the true progressive candidate. He performed well in attacking Sanders for his stance on guns and made a strong closing statement trying to be inclusive of all Democrats and show strong party unity: “On this stage you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of anyone because of their religious belief.” O’Malley gave a solid performance on all accounts, but he did not have the spectacular debate he needed to make a real climb in the polls.

As for Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb, little was expected and little was displayed. Although he has had no scandals in 30 years and is a self-acclaimed “block of granite” when it comes to his platform, Chafee’s debate performance will probably be best remembered as him admitting that he really didn’t know what he was voting for in 1999 when he said yes to repealing Glass-Steagall, a 1933 Act that separated investment and commercial bank activities. Chafee said that it was his first vote in the Senate, his dad had just died, and he was not really sure what was going on. When pressed by Cooper asking how he could vote for something he did not know about, Chafee responded saying that Cooper was being “a little rough”. Although Jim Webb was the more moderate, blue dog candidate trying to strike a cord with centrist Democrats, he spent most of the night frustrated by his lack of speaking time and casting China as the biggest long-term security threat to the United States. Webb continued to show his frustration on Thursday where he called the debate “rigged in terms of who was going to get the time on the floor”. Senator Webb makes a strong point. It is difficult to equally judge candidates on their debates when there is a disproportionate amount of speaking time allotted to each candidate (Clinton: 30 min 25 sec, Sanders: 27 min 41 sec, O’Malley: 17 min 8 sec, Webb: 15 min 20 sec, Chafee: 9 min 05 sec). Webb goes on, “It’s a reality that the debate was being portrayed as a showdown between Mrs. Clinton and Bernie, but if you’re going to be invited to participate and people are going to judge whether you, quote, “won” or not, at least you should be able to have the kind of time that’s necessary to discuss the issues that you care about, that you’ve worked on.” With an eleven-person field, it is certainly difficult for Republicans to distribute equal speaking time to candidates. But with only five candidates, the next moderators need to do a better job in making sure that all candidates get their proper time to speak.

The Moderators

After the fiasco that was Jake Tapper’s hosting of the second Republican debate, many were wary about how CNN would perform in hosting the first Democratic debate. Fortunately, Anderson Cooper provided the network a strong recovery. Cooper did his homework and was not afraid to pepper the candidates with question after question if he wasn’t getting a proper response. He started strongly when he addressed each candidate’s electability (asking Clinton about changing her positions based on political expediency and Sanders if the Democratic Socialist attached to his name makes unelectable). He was tough on candidates, asking Martin O’Malley about his zero tolerance policy on Baltimore and how some blame him for the Baltimore riots last spring. For the most part, he made sure candidates answered the questions they were asked; he called out Senator Sanders for not answering when he would use military force, forcing him into an answer. One difference I would’ve liked to see from Cooper was making sure the candidates answered the question about All Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter. Sanders was the first to answer, directly saying that Black Lives Matter, O’Malley circled around the question and then Cooper did not address the specific question to the remaining three candidates. With racial tensions escalating throughout the country, this was an important question that Cooper should have made sure all the candidates answered.

As for the rest of the moderating team, they played a typical CNN role of a weak supporting cast. Perhaps most notable was the way the supporting team was used. It seemed that moderators Don Lemon and Juan Carlos Lopez were marginalized into only asking questions about their ethnicities. One would hope that CNN would not intentionally do that but it seemed pretty clear on Tuesday night. This is certainly an issue that CNN needs to address moving forward.

Where do we go from here?

The debate is over and the next one is not for another month (November 14th). In the meantime, I do not expect for too much to change. It seems like Sanders will continue his positive momentum as he tours the country and Clinton will continue in her frontrunner position. As for the other three candidates, I would be surprised to see a sharp rise in the polls for any of the candidates. Of course, all speculation completely changes if Vice President Joe Biden decides to join the race. Reports have stated that Biden is in touch with strategists in Iowa and South Carolina and also telling his allies to be ready. That being said, Biden might have been the biggest loser of Tuesday night. A weak Clinton debate would have allowed him to join the race with a strong impact against the weakened Clinton right away. However, her strong performance Tuesday night will make things considerably harder for Biden. Whatever happens, it was good to see a group of strong, well informed candidates have a serious discussion of the issues facing our country. And while many may be quick to call Tuesday’s debate boring, perhaps a lack of petty, non-confrontational politics is exactly what the US political scene needs.


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