ICYMI: Here’s Everything Worth Knowing About the First Democratic Presidential Debate

David Faris wraps the first Democratic presidential debate since the Bush years into a pithy nutshell.


Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the CNN Democratic Presidential Debate in Las Vegas on October 13th. (Rex Features via AP Images)

The last time Democrats debated one another, George W. Bush was still the president, Lehman Brothers was still solvent, and most people probably thought Bear Stearns was a character in a children’s book. Since then, we’ve been subjected to a seemingly endless parade of incoherent climate-deniers, squirrel-eaters, nativists, assault-rifle-maximalists, uterus-controllers and Rick Santorums in nationally televised Republican debates, where the purpose appeared to be to see who could most quickly reduce American government to a series of Walmart distribution centers with an army.

So in a sense it was nice just to be able to watch a debate without cringing at literally everything that comes out of the candidates’ mouths, to be thrown some beautiful, marbled red meat, to be pandered to. I believe it was Jefferson who said that from time to time the tree of liberty needs to be watered with unrealistic campaign promises. Most importantly, the country was reminded that it is possible to gather more than two people on a stage together in public and have them praise, rather then trash, President Obama.

The narrative for this debate was set weeks ago – it was Hillary Clinton the frontrunner against Bernie Sanders the insurgent, and they’d both be sharing the stage with several other people who most Americans would need to Google to understand why they’re there. If, like me, you’ve buried your searing memories of the Bush years in a shallow grave and then built a mausoleum on top of that grave to ensure it never gets opened, you may not remember that Lincoln Chafee was one of the last reasonable Senate Republicans in the world and was defeated by Sheldon Whitehouse (by the way: What a name) in the 2006 Democratic wave. He then went on to occupy the obscure post of governor of something known as “Rhode Island.” Also onstage was a former Reagan functionary and one-term Senator called Jim Webb, and former Governor Martin O’Malley, sporting perhaps history’s worst-timed association with the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland. Looming toothily over the whole evening was Vice President Joe Biden, who seems like he might schedule a prime-time network special called “The Decision” and then tell us he’s not actually running for president. I’ve seen civil wars resolved more quickly than this guy’s run-or-don’t-run dilemma. Anyway, Joe Biden: Not there.

CNN started the debate very late, after Super Bowl-style introductions and a string of commercials, and by 10 p.m. the country was left wondering what happened to the good, old-fashioned 90-minute debate. The network seems determined to test the outer limits of our attention spans and patience.

In terms of what transpired on the stage, Hillary Clinton had a very effective evening. She was confident, and brushed off the expected attacks effectively. She looked like the most presidential person on stage. It was important for her to get ahead of this “flip-flop” narrative parroted by Anderson Cooper in his very first question. “Flip-flopper” as an epithet stalked both Al Gore and John Kerry like the malevolent demon in It Follows and Hillary very briefly dismantled this argument by saying, “I do absorb new information. I do look at what’s happening in the world.” She expected the attack on Iraq – which Obama leveled at her dozens of times in 2007 and 2008 – and pivoted nicely with the remark about how Obama still wanted her as Secretary of State. It wasn’t substantively a good answer, but debates are not necessarily about substance. Clinton seemed to be, by far, the best-informed person about Syria — which of course she should be — and capably defended her no-fly-zone proposal. She did so while maintaining that ground troops would not be involved. It wasn’t a perfect answer, but then again, I’ve never heard a perfect answer about Syria from anyone in either party. But including “the Iranians” on her enemies list at the end was incredibly stupid.

Clinton was less convincing on domestic policy, where she evaded her opposition to reinstating Glass-Steagal, and had perhaps the least-convincing answer to the Black Lives Matter question. She spoke about mass incarceration but didn’t put any particularly convincing moral force behind the plight of African-Americans in this country. Her refusal to take a firm position on marijuana is not going to endear her to younger voters. But her answer on paid maternity leave was terrific, where she connected her own experience as a working mother to the broader problems facing society. She was rather obviously the only person up there who could do that. More important than her answers to any particular question was that for the most part she seemed genuine. For months she’s been getting attacked on national television as some kind of bloodthirsty, prevaricating schemer, and what she most needed last night was the opportunity to reintroduce herself to the voters, to push back against some of the worst invective, and to move her candidacy beyond Benghazi and the emails scandal. She did that.

Bernie Sanders did well. He was energetic, and his arguments probably have the most appeal to your average Democratic primary voter. Look, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a party holding a competition like this to succeed a relatively popular (I said relatively!) president of the same party. In 2008, George W. Bush was so radioactive that the Republicans basically pretended that he didn’t exist. It is hard, then, for Democrats to advance some sweeping, “take our country back” narrative. You can’t take your country back from the your own president who remains very, very popular among Democrats. But Sanders, alone up there, can advance a critique simultaneously of the Obama years and the general state of the country, and he did it very effectively. His best moment was driving home the distinction between his banking policies and Hillary’s bizarre refusal to endorse a reinstatement of Glass-Steagal. “Fraud as a business model” was a great line. The young people driving his candidacy forward will surely love his college tuition proposal.

But that awkward moment where Cooper cornered him about socialism and capitalism encapsulates everything that Democratic elites fear about Sanders. At the end of the day, this guy really is a socialist. In a just universe that would not be a problem, since the ‘democratic socialism’ practiced in Europe is generally a vastly superior operating system for a modern society than America’s latchkey capitalism. But it is a problem in the United States, and Sanders is going to need a better answer than how he is going to “explain” to the American people what democratic socialism is. You can’t explain anything to American voters; they aren’t listening. His answer on gun violence was dreadful, and compounded by referring to himself in the third person, something typically restricted to the grandiose narcissists of the Republican Party. Hillary drove the stake in by saying the issue “wasn’t complicated” and came off as the candidate who would fight the gun manufacturers. But he also had some nice moments on Syria, particularly when he argued that Vladimir Putin would regret getting involved in Syria. He nailed the emails question, both in substance and tone. Overall he did nothing to hurt himself. If you were worried that he’s a raving lunatic, he probably put you at ease. But he remains an enormous long-shot candidate who will have trouble convincing primary voters that he is a plausible general election candidate.

Martin O’Malley was fine. He’s like the handcuff you draft for your running back in a fantasy football league — if the first-stringer gets injured, you still have a feature back. Hillary Clinton is not a young person, and if something happens between now and the convention, and Biden doesn’t run, O’Malley is the guy the Democrats will send in. He was also the only person on stage under the age of 65, so that provided a nice contrast, too. I can’t remember him saying anything particularly cutting, since he knows as well as anyone that he’s not going to be president as long as Hillary Clinton remains capable of walking. His best moments were on immigration and climate change, and he didn’t do anything to embarrass himself. Like everyone, I very much enjoyed him calling Donald Trump a “carnival barker.” His job was to seem plausible, and he seemed plausible. Mission accomplished.

Jim Webb, with his bluster against China, his support for the Keystone Pipeline, and his criticisms of affirmative action, gun control and the Iran Deal, appeared to be running for the Republican nomination. The Democrats should politely redirect him to the GOP’s kids-table early debate on October 28th where he can duke it out with Bobby Jindal and Rick Santorum and tell more stories about Vietnam War memorials. You simply cannot win the Democratic nomination in the year 2015 by running to the right of David Brooks. Not only that, he seemed weird, like someone you would make up an excuse to get away from at a party.

Also, Lincoln Chafee was there.

Until next time!

David Faris is an associate professor of political science at Roosevelt University. He was a frequent contributor to the Philadelphia City Paper, and his work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, NPR.org, and the Christian Science Monitor among others. You can reach him on Twitter @davidmfaris, or at david.faris@gmail.com.