Bernie and Hillary each emerged the victor to their respective supporters. (Who were those other guys?) Now the party just needs to figure out what they stand for.
With its bizarre, summer-blockbuster-trailer-style opening, followed by the National Anthem performed by “Grammy award–winner Sheryl Crow,” the first Democratic presidential debate of the 2016 campaign cycle eagerly set the stage for a knock ’em down, Superbowl-type sports brawl.
For the most part, it didn’t disappoint. Former Governor Lincoln Chafee jumped straight into his opening remarks by declaring, “I have had no scandals” and toting his “high morals,” both pointed digs at frontrunner and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ongoing email server debacle. Former Maryland Governor Marvin O’Malley too brought up “principles,” but was the first to mention—and even praise—President Barack Obama.
As the opening statements continued, though, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders jumped straight into real policies, attacking Citizens United as a corruptor of electoral politics, attacking economic disparities, climate change, even racial disparities in our economics and prisons.
Clinton, too, hit policies hard, but was obviously concerned about coming across as friendly and approachable. A congenial, smiling candidate introduced herself to the crowd, then methodically hit strong notes as the only woman in the race. She immediately backed equal pay for equal work and paid family leave as policy priorities and reminded viewers of the groundbreaking status of her own candidacy. According to Clinton, “Fathers will be able to say to their daughters, ‘Yes, you too can grow up to be president.'”
As the debate continued, tempers flared. Chafee, a former Republican, was questioned pointedly by moderator Anderson Cooper over his constantly changing party affiliations. “I have not changed on the issues,” Chafee retorted. “I was a liberal Republican, then an Independent, then a Democrat.” After calling himself “a block of granite,” Cooper remarked, “That’s pretty soft granite.”
Still Chafee wasn’t the angriest candidate on the stage that night. That award went to Virginia Governor Jim Webb, who constantly griped and whined, “This hasn’t been equal time!,” and interrupted the others throughout the debate. The attitude seemed appropriate for a candidate who constantly bucked the progressive stances that seemed to draw many of the other candidates together, from his less aggressive stance on climate change to his insistence that there is no way the government would find funds for any of the programs the other candidates proposed.
O’Malley, his voice calm and sedate throughout most of the evening, mostly disappeared into the podium. Instead, the event showcased the strengths, weaknesses, similarities, and differences in Sanders and Clinton. And the differences were quite obvious in many areas. Sanders held strong to his far left, progressive policies, eagerly embracing the word “socialist” and brushing off an assumption that compromise is a part of politics. He repeatedly advocated against an economic system that pooled most of America’s wealth in the top 1 percent of earners, while the rest of the country struggles just to get by day by day.
Clinton, meanwhile, rejected the accusation that she flip-flopped for political expediency. “I’m a progressive,” she said. “But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done. And I know how to find common ground.” Where Sanders proclaimed his distaste for “casino capitalism,” Clinton retorted, “It’s our job to rein in capitalism so it doesn’t run amuck. But we are not Denmark,” she added, proclaiming capitalism part of what makes America strong.
If Sanders floundered at all during the evening, it was while discussing gun violence. While other Democratic nominees stood firm in the need to stand up against the NRA and take a hard line on gun restrictions, Saunders was far less enthused.
“As a senator from a rural state I can tell Secretary Clinton that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what you want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing,” Sanders argued.
One place where almost all candidates were in accord was that the issue with Clinton’s use of a private email server was overblown. “I think the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn email!” Sanders proclaimed. “Enough of the emails! Lets talk about real issues facing America,” he shouted, to massive applause. Chafee, as an outlier, stated that the email issue is still alive and important, and hurts American credibility. When Cooper asked Clinton if she would like to respond to Chafee, she calmly answered with a smile, “No.”
For the two hours of debate, the candidates sparred on foreign policy, gun rights, hit income inequality repeatedly, almost unanimously agreed that #blacklivesmatter (surprise: Webb was out of step, punting by telling a story of a single Black person he helped while governor, clearing his name of a murder conviction; and throughout the evening, referred to Black people as an “issue” to deal with, and that he is against “diversity programs that include everyone, quote, ‘of color’”), discussed climate change, and one-upped each other on college costs, Social Security, and Medicaid expansion.
Sadly, there was literally no discussion when it came to one of the biggest political issues in the media: the assault on reproductive rights, legal abortion, and access to birth control. Clinton came the closest to touching on the topic, condemning a GOP that believes that Congress shouldn’t be allowed to mandate paid parental leave but should get to make decisions on a person’s right to choose and to defund Planned Parenthood.
Was there an actual winner in Tuesday night’s debate? If you are a Clinton supporter, you no doubt think she was the victor, and Sanders backers believe the same about their favorite. What everyone can take away is that Clinton has set a theme that will likely take her into the primaries—one where she touts not just her experience and her relationship with the still-popular president, but reminds America that her election would be a historic one as the first female president. This debate may have been her dipping her toe into the waters to test out appealing specifically to female voters, and for a first step it appears to be a success.
Sanders, meanwhile, is polishing his pitch that he is the only candidate that can bring the enthusiasm and backing of a strong, grassroots campaign, an enthusiasm he claims will offer the voter turnout the Democrats will desperately need not just to win the White House, but to flip the Senate back under Democratic control. While Clinton repeatedly mentioned being the first woman in the White House, Sanders just as frequently mentioned his large campaign crowds as they would translate into election day votes.
There will be five more debates for the Democratic candidates. And, as it became clear tonight, there is still much, much more to talk about. Tuesday night’s debate was only the start of a long, and very much needed conversation within the Democratic party.
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