In a few moments, five Democratic presidential candidates will take the stage in Las Vegas for their first televised debate. I wish the Democratic National Committee hadn’t stood in the way of scheduling more debates, starting this summer. Listening to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz try to defend her stance in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer today, all I could think was, thank heaven for the “Big Blue Wall.” We aren’t going to win elections on Wasserman-Schultz’s strategic skills, that’s for sure.
All of the candidates are under pressure tonight. Hillary Clinton wants to change the dominant media narrative, which has been relentlessly negative about her candidacy for months. Bernie Sanders has his first substantial block of tv time to talk about his policies. In recent months, network news coverage has devoted far more air time to Joe Biden’s possible presidential bid than to Sanders’ actual campaign, which is drawing record crowds.
As the loudest voice for more debates, who has received relatively little media attention so far, Martin O’Malley needs a strong showing tonight, especially since the other debates scheduled before the Iowa caucuses are all happening on weekends, when viewership will likely be low. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee will also want to break through to a national audience, but they are not building real campaign organizations the way O’Malley has done. Twitter user dcg1114, who posted this guest piece at Bleeding Heartland last month, noted today that the first debate of the 1984 election cycle gave Gary Hart his “first real sign of life.” In particular, that debate helped Hart improve his standing for the Iowa caucuses.
Incidentally, former Iowan and Democratic activist Tommi Makila wrote a blistering commentary contrasting O’Malley’s criticism of the DNC’s “rigged” process with the “rigged” Democratic primaries Makila has observed since moving to Maryland years ago.
Please share any relevant comments in this thread. I’ll update this post later with first thoughts on the debate. UPDATE: My impressions are below.
After the jump I’ve posted videos of the latest commercials Clinton has been running, as well as the debut tv ad the Generation Forward PAC put on the air in Iowa supporting O’Malley.
Five intelligent, knowledgeable people engaged in a fact-based discussion of real issues for more than two hours. What a contrast to the freak show on display during the Republican debates.
The instant analysis on television and online seems to be that Clinton won the debate. I would give the slight edge to Sanders. His forceful opening statement was unconventionally negative in content, but laid out the main case for his candidacy coherently. I don’t know how well his speaking style comes across to other people on television, but I felt he sounded distinctive and passionate, especially compared to a polished, more conventional political speaker like O’Malley. Even before the debate was over, the Sanders campaign was raising money off the biggest applause line of the night: “What the Secretary said is right. And that is the American people are tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” Everyone in the CNN focus group of undecided voters raised their hands when asked if they agreed that they wanted the discussion to move away from scandals and back to issues. I loved Sanders’ line about how Congress does not regulate Wall Street: Wall Street regulates Congress.
The most awkward moment for Sanders was his defense of his record on gun control (a D- record from the National Rifle Association). Not particularly convincing.
Clinton sounded so well-prepared. No one can deny that she is knowledgeable about every domestic or foreign policy issue that could come up. Early on, she explained her changed stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement fairly well, and I think that increased her confidence. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham tweeted tonight, “You are seeing why the @HillaryClinton won’t be the easy target GOP hopefuls think she’ll be.” One of the strongest moments for Clinton came when she was asked about concerns her family leave proposal might be too expensive. She pivoted to attacking Republicans:
They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose, and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it. You know, we can do these things. We, we should not be paralyzed, we should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, big government this, big government that, except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it, because we’re gonna make the wealthy pay for it.
The worst part of the debate for Clinton by far was her answer to the question about whether she is too close to Wall Street. She went to the big banks in 2007 and told them to “cut it out”–and that worked out so well!
It was hard for the second-tier candidates to distinguish themselves when Clinton and Sanders both performed well. O’Malley hammered home his theme of having actually done a lot of the things other candidates say they want to do. But I don’t see tonight as a breakout performance for O’Malley.
Webb and Chafee struggled to get speaking time and generally failed to offer Democrats many reasons to give them serious consideration. Some of their answers were strong (Webb on criminal justice reform), others weak (Chafee explaining his vote for the Glass-Steagall repeal bill). But it hardly matters, because they have been and will remain afterthoughts in the Democratic field.
I tend to agree with what I heard from several commentators tonight: the debate diminished the chance Joe Biden will enter the race. There’s not an unfilled niche for him in this field.
SECOND UPDATE: The Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich thinks it was a “grand slam” for Clinton.
Hillary Clinton looked the most presidential. She was calm and cool and frequently smiled, while Bernie Sanders scowled and flailed his arms. Clinton gave clear and polished answers to nearly every question, while Sanders’ attention occasionally seemed to wander.
For example, on a question that was originally about whether Clinton should have seen the Benghazi attack coming, Sanders seemed confused when asked to respond. Then he predicted Russian president Vladimir Putin would regret his military action in Syria.
Clinton swatted away criticisms like gnats. For example, on her vote in the U.S. Senate on the war in Iraq, she noted she had debated Barack Obama more than two dozen times during the 2008 campaign. “After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment,” she said.
THIRD UPDATE: Colin McEnroe argued at Salon that it was “Bernie’s night”:
Bill Clinton came from a place called Hope. Bernie Sanders is from a place called Anger. Many, many American voters also live there. […]
When you decide you’re less interested in winning and more interested in saying what you believe, all kinds of possibilities open up. […]
Going into tonight, I thought Sanders’ candidacy had a limited lifespan, a boutique voter base and a purpose confined to pushing Hillary Clinton and the press on progressive issues.
Now, somehow, it all seems a little bigger than that. Like Donald Trump, Sanders is talking past the media establishment and permanent political class. Unlike Trump, he has something to say and a long record of voting and speaking on these issues.
But Amanda Marcotte felt Hillary came out on top, even though Bernie “brought his A game”:
Both Sanders and Clinton highlighted their progressive views, but Clinton came across as more competent and comprehensive. Sanders is a bulldog on his economic ideas, but Clinton seemed more comfortable talking about a variety of issues that are dear to liberal hearts. […]
That isn’t to say that Sanders failed. If his goals are to bring progressive ideas to the forefront and to push the party to the left, he also succeeded with aplomb. But the real revelation was how Sanders, despite being Clinton’s opponent, might actually be her best friend in this election. Clinton is better when she’s talking about policy than about horse race issues like personality, and Sanders’s insistence on talking about substance instead of flash helped keep the moderators, and therefore her, focused on areas she’s strong on.
Brian Beutler argued that Clinton “nailed it” because “She explained the stakes of the 2016 election better than anyone else.”
During the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton’s facility in the primary debates stood in immense contrast to her stiffness behind teleprompters and press conference lecterns. The same contrast is evident in this campaign, with the important caveat that this time, she isn’t running against a half dozen polished debaters. If the Democratic Party, and the Clinton campaign, had reflected in a clear-eyed way on her last campaign, they would have started the debate series over the summer, and scheduled at least a dozen of them. […]
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley played an interesting and substantive role. He delivered persuasive moral arguments for progressive policy, and provided a strong reminder that just a few weeks ago, eleven Republicans were angling to be the most reactionary and insensitive candidate on their own debate stage. But he frequently offered up the kind of canned, and over-mannered answers we were primed to expect from Clinton.
Sanders was the only candidate who came close to matching Clinton’s ease and enthusiasm, but he lacked the kind of rhetorical quickness that at one point allowed Clinton to gain cover from her own support for the Iraq war from Barack Obama’s opposition to it. “I recall very well being on a debate stage about 25 times with then-Senator Obama debating this issue,” Clinton said. “After the election, he asked me to be secretary of state. He valued my judgment. I spent a lot of time with him in the situation room going over some very difficult issues.” […]
Clinton staked out the sweet spot between aspirational and pragmatic politics, when she dubbed herself “a progressive, but…a progressive who likes to get things done.” […]
Clinton more than the others seemed to grasp the importance of reminding the audience that the obstacles a Democratic president will face will be a small price to pay for not handing all three branches of government over to the right.
Generation Forward PAC’s debut television commercial supporting Martin O’Malley: “Actions”
First national television commercial Hillary Clinton’s campaign is running: Admit
Latest tv ad the Clinton campaign added to the rotation in Iowa and New Hampshire: Overnight