I had anticipated staying up late to parse the different exchanges during last night’s Democratic presidential debate. Alas, the verdict was self-evident throughout the night: Hillary Clinton dominated the debate from start to finish. Her answers were clear and concise, she never got rattled even when faced with questions designed to have that effect, she appeared more relaxed and, yes, more human than her opponents. Most importantly, she looked thoroughly presidential.
The irony here is that Sen. Bernie Sanders has been much more successful at defining the terms of the Democratic nominating process. We are talking more and more about income inequality and the shrinking middle class than usual. Everybody bashes Wall Street now and the only real discussion focuses on how that bashing is to be accomplished. In foreign policy, the party as a whole is much closer to Sanders’ traditional suspicion about the use of force than to Clinton’s more hawkish stances in the past. Yet, last night, Clinton thoroughly co-opted those issues and Sanders’ more leftish stances, even putting him on the defensive in the early part of the debate over his record on gun control.
The second big takeaway from last night was that the Democratic Party won. The GOP field is so large, they divided their debates into an adult table and a kiddie table, but it turned out that both tables were kiddie tables, with insults and amateurishness dominating the evenings. Last night, all five Democrats behaved like adults, talked like adults, entertained adult concerns and (mostly) adult solutions. And, apart from minor differences in pedigree and policy, the Democratic Party is essentially united around a common agenda: Build on the progress made in the past eight years of the Obama administration to restore rising incomes to the middle class, protect the safety net for the poor and find ways to lift them into the middle class, sock it to the rich, especially to the financial class, and pursue a less aggressive foreign policy. On the other hand, the Republican Party is in the middle of a civil war, unable to nominate a Speaker of the House.
Debates are frustrating things. When Sanders pointed out that Clinton and Gov. Martin O’Malley can talk all they want about gun control legislation, getting it through a Congress in which small, rural states are over-represented, he was absolutely correct. But, his being correct was not enough to win the exchange. Clinton pointed to Sander’s less than stellar record, e.g., voting against the Brady Bill five times, and O’Malley had his best moment of the night, pointing out that he actually pushed through gun control legislation in Maryland, which has plenty of rural, as well as urban, regions.
Unfortunately for O’Malley, that one shining moment was not followed by the kind of performance that would have ratcheted him up in the polls. Even in the media coverage, O’Malley needed to get himself mentioned with Clinton and Sanders, not with Gov. Lincoln Chaffee and Sen. Jim Webb. If this morning’s Washington Post is any indication, that did not happen. If the debate had ended at the forty minute mark, O’Malley would have had a great night. But, in the latter half of the debate, he repeated the words “Glass-Steagall” so many times, it sounded contrived. He happens to be correct on the issue: Bill Clinton was wrong to acquiesce in the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999. But, why O’Malley thought this was the issue to catapult him up the leader board was beyond me.
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Sanders had a rough start. He looked defensive and, as Dana Milbank noted this morning, he kept shouting as if he was under the misapprehension that his microphone was not working. But, after he delivered what we all knew instantly would be the most played soundbite – “enough about your damn emails” – Sanders found his footing and did nothing to cause his supporters to look elsewhere.
One of last night’s losers was not on the stage. Unless I missed it, there was no lane opening for Vice President Joe Biden if he decided to get into the race.
There were some silly moments, of course. Clinton drew a distinction between Russian presidents Medvedev and Putin that does not exist in fact. She also confirmed the basic inconsistency of both parties in her defense of Planned Parenthood, chastising Republicans for opposing big government when it comes to policies she likes, and chastising them for supporting big government when it comes to policies she does not like. Sanders really has not explained how he is going to pay for free college, nor how making college free would affect rising college costs. O’Malley scored well in the discussion of the state-level Dream Act but did not do enough to talk about the role of family unification in reforming immigration policy. O’Malley also had the strongest closing statement, but it was too late.
Earlier this year, I wrote that there was no one who could beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination except Hillary Clinton. Through much of the summer, she appeared to be doing a pretty good job of that. Last night she reminded us all that she is a pro. It is strange to think that one of the most divisive figures in politics for more than two decades could talk about uniting the country last night without people guffawing. For all the drama the Clintons bring with them, they have an uncanny knack to earn the right opponents, and compared to the GOP today, Clinton really could prove to be a non-divisive figure. Who would have predicted that?