The Democratic Party won the Democratic debate

Last night, the Democratic Party finally held a presidential debate. It was, at least while candidates not named Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee were talking, a fantastic debate. Bernie Sanders introduced himself to the nation; Hillary Clinton gave the impression of being an actual human being and Martin O’Malley showed that he will make an excellent Secretary of Transportation.

The five candidates on stage made it through two hours of debating without promising a war with Russia, alienating any ethnic minorities, denying science or attacking each others’ physical appearance. Bernie Sanders got one of the loudest applause lines of the night for rightly pointing out that Hillary Clinton’s private email server is a silly issue and that there are more important things to talk about. Clinton hit home in reminding viewers that the Republican Party isn’t serious about railing against “big government” when their current top legislative priority is attacking a women’s health organization.

Journalists watching the debate think Hillary won; snap polls on the Internet, social media engagement and Google traffic say Sanders won. Both of those declarations of a winner come with caveats: Journalists totally missed Ben Carson’s emergence following the first debate, and Bernie Sanders has outperformed on Internet metrics throughout his entire campaign, which complicates his strong showing in unscientific, Internet-based polls.

And let’s not forget O’Malley, who stood to gain the most from national exposure and showed why he’s been going after the Democratic National Committee for not scheduling more debates. He has nowhere to go but up, and he should get some kind of bounce coming off of his performance — at least, he deserves to.

Put another way, every serious* candidate on stage turned in a strong performance. Record and policy disagreements aside, Hillary Clinton was far and away the best debater and most skilled politician on the stage, and that matters for her. Her primary goal last night was to calm the Democratic establishment and show that she will, in fact, win the general election. Had she not done so, she’d be met this morning with fresh calls for Joe Biden to enter the race. By being fluid, assertive and prepared to answer questions on her major weaknesses as a candidate — trade, Wall Street and the Iraq War being the three she had no trouble handling — while drawing blood on Sanders’ gun rights record, she accomplished everything she set out to do and more.

Sanders, for his part, struggled out of the gate on gun control and foreign policy but found his footing during the second half, winning an exchange with Clinton when she claimed that her plan to regulate Wall Street was in fact tougher than his. While Clinton is a known commodity, Sanders is still new for a lot of Democrats who don’t live in Iowa or New Hampshire. And the more Democrats find out about Sanders, the more they like him.

At the end of the day, the heaviest blows of the night came at the expense of the Republican Party and their slate of candidates. Like Martin O’Malley’s closing statement, which was one of the highlights of the night:

Given the state of the Republican Party and its field of presidential candidates, the clearest winner from last night’s debate is the Democratic Party. At the end of the day, given the chasm of difference between the two parties right now on the basic questions of whether and how government should exist — let alone what it should do — that’s what’s important.

Someone on that debate stage needs to pick the next Supreme Court justices, and last night made me feel much better about the chances of that happening.

*Jim Webb is running for the presidency of West Virginia and I think Lincoln Chafee’s family is going to have a hard time voting for him. They were little more than sideshows during the debate, with Webb eerily grinning after saying he killed a man in Vietnam and Chafee admitting that he didn’t read the first bill he voted for in the Senate. They don’t count as serious candidates, and by the end of the debate the moderators and other candidates had stopped paying attention to them.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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54 Responses to “The Democratic Party won the Democratic debate”

  1. Jane says:

    No. I understood your point. I guess you sort of missed the humor!

  2. rmthunter says:

    Sort of missed the point, didn’t you?

  3. Jane says:

    You do realize that is seven words, right? ;) That math right there might be the difference between Democrats and Republicans!

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  5. tfortea says:

    Very true.

  6. tfortea says:

    Martin did better than Bernie or sanders in my view.

  7. rmthunter says:

    “We need to appeal to the goodness. . . .”

    That, in six words, is the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans.

  8. mf_roe says:

    I did my military service under Nixon. He was a vile puppy — but he worked for the Negative Income Tax and he is responsible for the EPA. His brand of republicanism would pass for today’s Dem Centralists.. The truth is that the repugs were able to move so far to the right because the Dems moved to the right in step with them. The Dems discredited progressiveism and socialism by this shift.

  9. mf_roe says:

    Settle for the possible instead of wasting time on the impossible, works for me.

  10. FLL says:

    I was curious about something, so I reviewed the increasingly famous video clip of Bernie saying “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” (link here). I saw something that I don’t normally see in these kind of debates, and that is teamwork of a sort developing between Bernie and Hillary. Determining which one comes out on top is what primaries are for, but they seem to have complimentary strengths and weaknesses. Hillary is seen as too cozy with bankers and weak on protecting the environment, but Bernie is a real warrior in both areas. Bernie is somewhat weak on gun control and racial issues, two areas in which Hillary is more assured. What I was not expecting was that Bernie and Hillary seem to have a very friendly rapport.

  11. BeccaM says:

    I honestly don’t know… if nothing else, Sanders is a breath of fresh air for this here aging hippie, who watched the whole country lurch and ratchet to the conservative right since, oh 1968 by some accounts. (Personally, and this is just my own experience, my first shock in political beliefs was discovering in the late 1970s just how many of my fellow high school students considered themselves to be conservatives and supported Reagan.)

  12. Bill_Perdue says:

    I’m afraid you have an exaggerated view of the ability of ‘leaders’ and of ‘voting’. In the Democrat and Republican parties leaders are the chosen tools of the banksters.

    Reasonable people understand that the concept that voting changes nothing is a fact, not an opinion.

    Socialists put the emphasis on building mass movements that compel change.

  13. Opinionated Cat Lover says:


    Hillary represents the old guard to me, the same tired establishment that has rolled over and showed its belly to the crazy-stupid that is Team Red.

    While I am concerned about Bernie Sander’s advanced age, I’m more concerned with More of the Same, of elaborate campaign promises made by people like Clinton that end up by the wayside, like has happened before.

    Of course, Team Red’s issues all come down to crazy stupid…

  14. mf_roe says:

    Certainly a valid argument for FULL MEDICAL disclosure.

  15. mf_roe says:

    Sadly, I see Sanders as someone who does suffer one of the weaknesses of someone too long in the battle. He seems to think that taking a high moral stand on an issue is enough (or should be). His refusal to point out the failures of his opponents makes me wonder if he has the political skills needed to contend with repug opposition if he is elected. It’s more of a case of intellectual agility than physical fitness. His play book is dated and I don’t know if he is up to making it up as he goes.

  16. mf_roe says:

    Repugs are more united in their opposition to gun control than abortion. They lost on Abortion but are still fighting the battle, their defense of their idea of gun rights will be even stronger. It may be a worthy battle but Sanders’ priorities seem better fitted to the realities of just how much can be accomplished in the next administration.

  17. mf_roe says:

    Thanks, and yes I agree that Sanders leaves many passionate gun control people unsatisfied., Personally, I have stronger reservations about his acceptance of Israel’s intrusions in our foreign policy. I think I would happily settle for Bernie’s Vision if he were to achieve it, EVEN IF he failed to address gun control. The Nazi-fication of our Country is a greater evil than just individual gun related violence. Gun Control will not proceed without the changes that Sanders advocates.

  18. FLL says:

    I’m guessing that folks in New England might shout “Bernie’s our native son and we’ll vote for him no matter how old he is!” Buuuuut… the rest of the country might think twice about Bernie’s age.

  19. BeccaM says:

    Ultimately, I agree with you. It’s just not that big a deal. I very much prefer Sanders’ positions on banking and Wall Street reforms, and on a whole host of other issues.

  20. BeccaM says:

    Personally, I think upper 60s is pushing it and always have, because look what we got in the 2nd half of Reagan’s presidency (and some might say ‘and half of his first term, too).

    Yes, I do think 75 is pushing it, because that’d make him 79 if he ran for a 2nd term.

    We’ve seen how the presidency ages just about everyone who takes the job (and actually tries to do it, as opposed to last prez). Obama is roughly my age, and he went from hair darker than mine to nearly gray-white now, in just seven years.

  21. Houndentenor says:

    Guns are a liability for Sanders in many of the primaries, but frankly I don’t see how anyone else’s proposals get through Congress so I’m not sure if in reality it would make any difference.

  22. Houndentenor says:

    I like Joe a lot but he has his foot in his mouth half the time. He’s smart and thoughtful but really does go off the rails too often for me to want him as the nominee. (Even as Veep they took him off the campaign trail for a couple of weeks in 2008.) It looks like O’Malley did himself a real favor last night. People sometimes ask why these other people are in both races. Well this is why. He just got a national platform on CNN last night. Maybe this helps him run for other offices. A lot of people are already talking about him as Veep. Those are all good things for a politician. Positive buzz is rare and not to be discounted!

  23. FLL says:

    I wish Sanders was about 10 years younger.

    Reagan (who so far holds the record for oldest president when first inaugurated) was 69 when he was inaugurated; Trump would be 70 if inaugurated; Hillary would be 69 if inaugurated; Bernie would be a whopping 75 if inaugurated. 75 is kind of pushing it, no?

  24. Houndentenor says:

    There was no shift. Only people deep inside the Washington bubble or disconnected from at least half of the Democratic primary voters though Hillary was a shoe-in at this point 8 years ago. Many Democrats, myself included, were still furious about the Iraq War. Those of us who voice opposition weren’t just overruled but were demonized as traitors and un-American. We were right and they were wrong and while I’m not nearly as angry about now as I was in 2007, that hasn’t fully gone away. There was a lot of opposition to Hillary looking for a candidate. There was no major shift. Just a lot of people dissatisfied with the more of the same bullshit of the Democratic Party. I think there’s plenty of that in both parties this year which is why the “inevitable” candidates aren’t doing all that well.

  25. BeccaM says:

    He was opposed to the Brady bill, hence the origin of that allegation. His record on gun control is very mixed. You are correct in noting he seems to have become more okay with the notion of more universal background checks. His other main problem, as I recall, was he favored immunity from liability lawsuits for gun makers.

  26. FLL says:

    Your guess is based on the proposition that Bernie cannot win any primaries at all in the South,the interior West or the Great Plains, which would prevent him from getting the nomination. That may be true but I’m not sure at this early stage. Bernie may yet have some surprises to pull (although as Beccas notes, Bernie is very, very old.)

  27. mf_roe says:

    I missed the part where Sanders is against background checks, I thought I heard him advocate closing the “Gun Show Loophole”.

  28. mf_roe says:

    Since you refuse to run and lead us out of the desert I guess we’re doomed.

  29. mf_roe says:

    Even more important than “Fire in the Belly” Biden lacks a drive to accomplish a mission. What do you think of when Biden’s name comes up? A Goal or just a political move?

  30. FLL says:

    Yes, mrEd comments on the lack of substance at the Republican debate but gives the Republican debate a pass on the sometimes hateful rhetoric. If you really took note of the outright slurs hurled at various demographics by the Republican candidates, your description would be more apt.

  31. Naja pallida says:

    I think mrEd was exceptionally kind to the Republicans. To me, the Republican debate was more like a row of open toilet stalls filled with people who have raging diarrhea… and at least four toilets short of the number of people who desperately need them.

  32. FLL says:

    Hillary’s performance didn’t really put a dent in Bernie’s strong support, but she probably eliminated any rationale Joe Biden may have had for entering the race. I agree with you that Biden won’t run.

  33. nicho says:

    #3 is as unlikely or more unlikely than #1 and #2.

  34. Naja pallida says:

    I’d be willing to bet that no one in Congress ever reads the bills they vote on. The bills are written by special interest groups like ALEC, handed to a representative that they know will do as they’re told. Some low-level staffer writes out some bullet points about what the bill is supposed to be doing based on the fancy names they give things, and then they take it to the committee. If the synopsis of the bill reinforces the partisan ideology of the majority of the committee, it goes to the floor. All too often they’re already considering a bill for a full floor vote before anyone even points out that hey, this bill doesn’t actually do what they claim it does – or does a whole lot of extra, often unrelated, things that nobody bothered to mention. I don’t believe there’s even a living Congressman who has actually, personally, written his own legislation.

  35. nicho says:

    Yep. Joe is a lot like Bob Dole. You never got the sense that he really wanted to be president. He was just going through the motions.

  36. BeccaM says:

    I truly do not think Biden will run nor that he’s seriously considering doing so. If he were, we would’ve been hearing months ago about him setting up on-the-ground organizations in the early primary states.

    Drafting a candidate really only works 2-3 years out or when there’s some kind of totally unexpected event that results in a power vacuum.

    There’s an old saying about how one needs “fire in the belly” to run for president. Joe just doesn’t have it and I don’t think he ever did.

  37. BeccaM says:

    The Democrats held a traditional, real-ish debate, where as far as the mechanics go, I was surprised to see all of them pushing back against the CNN moderators’ repeated attempts to “Fox-ify” the event, resisting the silly and irrelevant questions and so on. On average, they were serious about this being about the most important elected office in the country and all clearly accepted the premise that our government both serves a purpose and needs to run properly for America to be a superpower in the world.

    The Republicans, on the other hand, seem fine to have the game show version, “Who Wants To Be a President?” Or maybe, “America’s Got Candidates!”

    Individual impressions (just my opinions here):
    – Clinton did do pretty well, and unlike many other candidates — particularly among the GOPers — has recognized she needs to have coherent answers on hand for the controversy-related questions (both real and manufactured) she’s bound to be asked.

    – Sanders… I like Bernie for the most part, and am most grateful that he’s dragging that political pendulum back towards the left, by reminding voters of all the ways they could benefit from liberal (not conservative) policy solutions. Unlike Hillary, Bernie is willing to shine a bright spotlight onto all the ways corporations, including bankers and Wall Street, have been rigging our government to serve them and not the people. But the gun control stuff keeps tripping him up, esp. since he can’t seem to come up with a coherent answer as to what’s wrong with universal background checks for all gun purchases. I’ll share with y’all my own top concern: I wish Sanders was about 10 years younger.

    – O’Malley would’ve done well as a standard, generic, vanilla Democratic candidate in any other election. A candidate who just oozes “average”: Average gender (for a politician). Average race. Average age and background. Average ethnicity and religion. The kind of guy nobody really has passion for, but also who nobody especially hates. However, in time his name will be no more than a Jeopardy game answer. You have the right of it, Jon: O’Malley will likely end up appointed to some middling cabinet position and never be heard from again.

    – Chafee gave me every impression of being a guy who was talked into running, but has no real idea why he’s doing it. A man with not much rudder or sense, and who just seems to stumble into things. He has all the charisma of a wet paper bag and his political career is unremarkable. He also screwed up majorly in admitting he had no idea why he voted in favor of the Glass-Stegall repeal in ’99, and attributing it to a lack of experience.

    – Webb presented himself as the candidate for conservative Democrats who’d much rather vote Republican, but can’t quite bring themselves (yet) to switch their party registration. Every time he opened his mouth, it was like, “He thinks this is the Fox/GOP debate…” The grin after recounting killing a guy in ‘Nam was just flat out creepy.

  38. Indigo says:

    That makes sense too. So many things could happen between now and whenever.

  39. 2karmanot says:

    I’m glad I sat next to you.

  40. Indigo says:

    That’s possible. Tectonic plates can shift without warning. After all, Obama displaced Hillary unexpectedly with less substance but more charisma that the average Democrat.

  41. nicho says:

    I think if Hillary drops out, the nod will go to O’Malley. Just my opinion. Joe has had his day. It’s over. Also, he doesn’t have the fire in his belly for it. His hedging now kind of proves that.

  42. Houndentenor says:

    I only watched highlights, but from those (correct me if I missed something) the points were substantive and not a lot of personal attacks and irrelevant nonsense. In other words, what these things ought to be. I haven’t made any decisions but will be checking out O’Malley a bit more. I don’t vote in a primary until March. I see no reason to commit at this point. I’m also more concerned that whoever we nominate is running on issues I care about. That to me is most of what the primaries are for since the frontrunner almost always winds up with the nomination. Other candidates have a chance to get important issues into the conversation. People used to know that before the media started just wanting to cover the horse-race and the food-fight aspects of campaigns.

  43. Houndentenor says:

    Joe is keeping a toe in just in case something happens and Hillary has to drop out.

  44. Doug105 says:
    Stolen from mrEd’s comment on the friendlyatheist.

  45. nicho says:

    Normally, I don’t watch these political TV extravaganzas — like so-called “debates,” SOTU addresses, presidential addresses to the nation, etc. I prefer to read about them the next day.

    For some reason, I watched the first half of last night’s show. Several things struck me. The clear winner was Martin O’Malley — not because he necessarily said anything brilliant, but because he got name and face recognition, which he lacked, and came across as a sane candidate.

    Webb and Chafee showed why they are fringe candidates and should remain so. Chafee seems like a nice man and he should go home and take up a hobby. Webb is just scarier that shit. He lost me in his opening remark when he said that Obama had given the Iranians permission to build a nuclear bomb. I don’t know if anyone remembers the “Reagan Democrats” during the ’80s, but Webb comes across as a “Teaparty Democrat.”

    Bernie and Hillary were pretty much what you’d expect. Jon says Hillary was the “best debater.” If this were an actual debate, I might agree. She certainly had obscure facts, figures, dates, etc. at her fingertips. However, to me that tells me she was speaking not so much from her heart as from her briefing book, on which she has spent millions of dollars and on which she has been endlessly drilled by her handlers. Not a lot of spontaneity.

    Not being a follower of these things, I was put off by the format. At least the first half seemed to be more of a trial than a debate. I came to hear politicians state their ideas and programs — not defend themselves against attacks from their enemies.

    Anderson: People say you beat your wife. What is your answer to that?

    And on and on and on and on. I really learned nothing of substance.

    I missed the part where Chafee said he didn’t read the first bill he voted on. The Intertubes are full of that this morning, as if it’s something remarkable. What they fail to mention is that many members of Congress are simply told by their leadership how their going to vote — whether they’ve read the bill or not. Nobody read — or was allowed to read — the Patriot Act. No member of Congress can tell you what’s in TPP. So, everyone getting their knickers in a knot over Chafee’s admission is either a naif or dishonest.

    But, at the end of the night, everyone stayed within the narrative — Iran – bad; Putin – bad; Assad – bad; Israel – good; US — just absolutely supremely good; Wall St. – good but needs a few tweaks; capitalism — simply delicious. After all, everyone reminded us, capitalism built the middle class — totally ignoring the fact that it was the socialism of the labor unions that actually built the middle class.

    It was better than what I’ve read of the GOP debate. The Democrats were able to “cover” better than the GOP nutjobs, but they’re pretty much onboard with the same programs — strife in the ME, letting Wall St. have its way, government spying on citizens, etc.

  46. Bill_Perdue says:

    The Democrats lost just as their republican brothers and sisters did.

    Obama, the Clintons and Bush will not be indicted as war criminals. the Bush, Clinton and Obama cabinets will not be indicted for fraud.

    Bill Clinton will not be indicted for causing the collapse of 2007 and the mass unemployment it engendered wtih NAFTA and the deregulation bills of 1999 and 2000.

    Neither party supports opening the borders to refugees from the economic and environmental dislocation caused by Bill Clintons NAFTA.

    Neither party is going to guarantee high trade union levels of wages for workers, students and retired workers.

    Neither party is for socialized medicine now.

    Neither party is willing to end offshore drilling and fracking and force oil and automobile companies to develop non-polluting vehicles.

    Neither party calls for the mass arrest and indictment of cops implicated in hate crimes.

    Neither party has any real solutions and no matter who wins next November things will stay the same. Both major parties will face increasingly large and militant struggles against low wages, racsim, misogyny and their joint wars of aggression and wars against unions.

    On November 8, 2016 vote Socialist or Labor, vote for good referendums and if there aren’t any Left candidates write in Chelsea Manning or join the majority in sitting it out.

    It’s always better not to vote at all than to vote for our enemies, Democrats and Republicans.

    “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don’t want and get it.” – Eugene V. Debs

  47. 2patricius2 says:

    Quite true. This is much too soon. With both the Republican debates and this Democratic debate, with all the polls of who is up and down, I cannot but think that there has not been a single vote on any candidate. A lot can and will happen between now and election day. All the speculation by talking heads now is just fluff. It is when people start to caucus and when they start to vote that we will begin to see things more clearly.

  48. FLL says:

    …given the chasm of difference between the two parties right now on the basic questions of whether and how government should exist — let alone what it should do…

    There is also a chasm of difference between an actual debate and the circus that was the Republican excuse for a debate. Anyone who equates the two parties for the sake of cuteness doesn’t convince anyone and really needs to think it through again.

  49. noGOP says:

    “congress doesn’t regulate wall street; wall street regulates congress”

  50. Indigo says:

    The Democrats won. Okay, but the election is still a year off, let’s try not to get all Fox-Newsy about it.

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