The Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night had something that two previous GOP debates lacked: an extended, substantial discussion of significant issues.
From turmoil in the Middle East to gun violence to Wall Street reform, the candidates, often fluently, expressed their views and perspectives. Fortunately, they didn’t always agree, which kept the two-hour-plus debate interesting. They argued often, but it was on substance, and their spats gave viewers some opportunities for visceral connections plus a chance to gauge how each debater rose to the challenge.
Missing were the petty jabs and the one-on-one personality sparring that has characterized both Republican debates. Given a chance to score political points on Hillary Clinton’s email controversy, Bernie Sanders unexpectedly took her side.
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As former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley observed in his closing remarks, no one denigrated women or immigrants or people of different religions. “What you heard on this stage tonight was an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward,” O’Malley said.
The event probably won’t shift the landscape much. Clinton seems destined to remain the frontrunner, and bolstereed by her performance. Sanders continues to command loyalty from a passionate though essentially limited base. O’Malley might gain ground, but the Democratic intrigues and most of the energy will continue to circle around the Clinton and Sanders camps.
Meanwhile, we look forward to the GOP candidates taking a cue from their rival party and embracing substance on the debate stage.
Clinton silenced some doubters. She was strong on issues, such as gun control and women’s health care, that matter to the Democratic base and proved eager to stake a claim to Sanders’ progressive turf on subjects like income inequality and student debt.
The former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state resolutely defended herself on the controversy over her storage of emails, and on controversial foreign policy moves. Her wide range of knowledge and experience was on full display, and she projected a welcome sense of humor.
Clinton’s line, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” is not a bad way to define a campaign.
She made no real gaffes, and gave Vice President Joe Biden little reason to think his candidacy is needed to save the Democratic party.
The self-declared democratic socialist was strong in his wheelhouse, standing up for the American worker and taking on the big banks, Wall Street and the inordinate wealth of “the top one-tenth of 1 percent” of the population.
Sanders spoke passionately against entering another quagmire in the Middle East and on the overriding national security threat posed by climate change and the potential of leaving future generations an uninhabitable planet.
Sanders also scored major points when he stood up for Clinton: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails....Let’s talk about the real issues in America.”
He stumbled though, in trying to explain his support for immunity for gunmakers, and seemed uncomfortable on some foreign affairs topics. Sanders’ performance, with his feel-the-Bern anger bubbling just below the surface, probably did little to extend his appeal beyond his solid, fired-up base.
The former Maryland governor and Baltimore mayor is bearing the burden of high-profile crime and police abuse incidents in Baltimore, though he parried that by pointing to progress his city made. He touted his record for passing gun legislation and a higher mininum wage in his state and spoke convincingly on immigration reform and other progressive issues.
O’Malley definitely and sometimes passionately helped his cause, if only by leaving Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb in the dust. But he remains a candidate awaiting an affirming nationwide spark. Among his recurring, resonant themes was a talking point about income and the middle class: “70 percent of us earning the same or less as 12 years ago.”
The former governor and senator from Rhode Island didn’t look ready for prime time, much less the presidency. Though his dovish views may endear him to some Democrats, his protestation that he made the wrong vote on the Glass Steagall Act because it was only his first day in the U.S. Senate pretty much dooms him out of the gate.
Chafee tried to present himself as the baggage-free, un-scandal candidate, in obvious contrast to the woman at the center of the debate stage. But his line that was meant to reassure voters about his past as a former Republican — “You’re looking at a block of granite when it comes to the issues” — will be remembered as unfortunate. What won’t be remembered: his incomprehensibly nonchalant answers on almost every question.
This former senator, Navy secretary and best-selling novelist has yet to sway anyone that he’s for real in this race. He offered his resume of strong military service, avowing that he would be the most qualified to serve as commander in chief. He also set himself apart from the other candidates by stressing that China presents the greatest security threat to the nation.
He projected a forthright, thoughtful stance, but as a speaker he was far from inspirational and at times downright unlikeable. Pro tip for future debates: Whining about not getting enough time to talk is not a winning strategy.