It’s been seven years since the last real Democratic debate, and it’s easy to forget that they can be like this. Between the endless soulfucker of the 2012 GOP debate schedule — complete with booing gay soldiers, severe conservatism and Newt Gingrich all but calling Juan Williams uppity — and this year’s contest to see who promises to sit on a bigger ziggurat of skulls, Tuesday night’s first Democratic debate was almost fun.
At their best, this year’s two Republican debates have felt akin to Lord of the Flies — or Battle Royale, but without anyone trying to win via science. With the exception of Ted Cruz keeping his head down and avoiding alienating The Donald’s supporters in order to snatch them up later, everyone has swung wildly at everyone else like a kid mashing buttons in a Mortal Kombat game. Despite the obvious differences, even resentments, among the Democratic participants, viewers were treated to something collegial. Like a debating society, almost. While Hillary Clinton had the strongest showing, the Democratic field itself came away almost as much of a winner.
Not everything was perfect, of course. Lincoln Chafee… he means well. With the exception of family and perhaps neighbors who don’t have a good poker face and would want to skip the hassle, nobody was in danger of voting for him. If anything, Chafee chipped away at his neighborhood advantage when he compared himself to granite, admitted he changed parties because running as a Republican was hard, defended some votes on the basis that “everyone else was doing it” and claimed he made an uninformed vote because his dad was dead. OK, the dog ate your parent.
And Jim Webb? Well Jim Webb killed a dude. Not during the debate, although God knows it might have been possible if it dragged on. Webb spent much of his time complaining about how little time he had to speak. His introductory comments were so long on backstory that there was a danger he might have backed up to the pleistocene. With his too-tight collar and rigid posture, Webb looked like he might have been fighting down a particularly rebellious meal, and his gruffly paternal displeasure threatened to manifest with him blowing a whistle and ordering the entire CNN panel to run two minutes of cross-court suicides. Then he bragged about killing a person and smiled.
Of the CNN panel, things could have been much worse. Anderson Cooper’s opening salvo for the candidates boiled down to variations on you are full of shit, are you not? as if to get rid of each candidacy’s ugliest existential questions first. After that, his questions were generally thoughtful and stimulating, and he even welcomely paused to explain the Glass-Steagall Act to the audience. The rest of the network’s presentation was iffy, with minority reporters/personalities each asking A Minority Question. Including minority moderators is of course welcome, but tasking each with an at best token question is lazy as hell. (You started to wonder if a question from the Internet audience would feature a young woman holding a hand over her abdomen and saying, “Secretary Clinton, I’m a woman mom who is pregnant with having a baby…” or maybe some mook in a hard hat saying, “I gawt one for Senata Sandess. You think tha Mets’a gonna make the Series o’wat?”)
Unfortunately, those questions didn’t elicit the full answers we should expect from the candidates. Although Clinton has addressed the Black Lives Matter issue better than all the candidates, that’s more a matter of having a better response in the can than O’Malley and Sanders. Clinton is better at identity politics in general, as evidenced in part by, as the Washington Posts‘ Alexandra Petri noted, her going to the gender well for applause repeatedly, even if it didn’t state much more than the self-evident. But on Black Lives Matter itself, each candidate should be forced to reiterate a concrete program until every voter has memorized it by default. Martin O’Malley should never be able to take refuge in convenient law-and-order politics again, and it’s likely he can’t. Sanders’ rising-tides-lift-all-boats economic populism is on the right track, but black poverty and lack of opportunity is also the product of racism baked into the justice system, lending, etc. If Hillary Clinton is inaugurated in January 2017, she should not be allowed to convene the nation’s largest conversation on race and, gosh, just really talk it out.
That said, Hillary came out looking the best in the debate, courtesy of a strong condemnation of the GOP on the subject of Planned Parenthood, a one-word rejoinder that generated rolling laughter and a sharp turn to the left of Bernie Sanders on gun control paired with a memorable ownership of the anti-NRA message. There are still plenty of holes in her swing, though.
Her brief defense of Libyan intervention attempted to elevate bombing to some kind of shrewd tactic instead of what is now always the easiest option. Her defense of the Patriot Act — that it was important to start a “process,” but “the Bush administration began to chip away at that process, and I began to speak out” — seems remarkably gutless for 2015. She also gives every indication that she will continue her historical hawkishness, either because she genuinely believes in it, mistakenly thinks it can peel off Republican voters or thinks she has to be twice as aggressive as a woman to be considered just as aggressive as a man.
Her responses on Wall Street reform are particularly vulnerable. At one point, Hillary attempted to claim that there was little difference amongst Sanders, O’Malley and her on the issue, when she’s inarguably the weakest of the three. Asked to give an example of her record, she cited showing up to Wall Street in 2007 to ask them to, like, stop doing bad stuff. She also promises, if elected, to check with her advisors about which banks to intervene in, which sounds great until you start asking where they worked before and expect to work later. With Sanders effectively refusing Wall Street money and Hillary snatching it up before any can go O’Malley’s way, she has the most incentive to paint her opponents as radicals and make a virtue of restraint if not inaction. Instead, it might behoove her to call Wall Street her enemy in the same way that she does health and pharmaceutical corporations.
Meanwhile, Bernie had a strong debate in all respects other than gun control and his physical appearance, and maybe the latter doesn’t even matter that much. Despite raising both fists repeatedly as if he were miming climbing the monkey bars on the playground, a huge part of Bernie’s appeal is looking like he’s too busy for the stupid shit. Combs, flashy suits, practicing sounding like he’s going to cry, looking upward as if he can see eagles hov’ring distantly overhead — all that disingenuous weepy Ted Cruz/Marco Rubio BS that makes it appear as if they see America through the same gauze Hollywood used to wrap around camera lenses for Joan Collins. The sort of people who will irrevocably write off Bernie for insufficient plasticity probably weren’t watching this debate anyway, and anyone on the fence about it may well have owed the highlight of their debate night to Bernie doing the political version of grabbing the podium, staring into the camera, and saying, Are you fucking kidding me?
The moment came after Hillary’s emails threatened to devour huge amounts of debate time. Sanders, channeling God knows practically every potential Democratic voter, allowed that he wasn’t doing the most politically advantageous thing for his own fortunes but jumped in on Hillary’s behalf and said, “The American public is sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Clinton laughed and shook his hand. Later, during his coda on the evening, doubtless referring to prepared remarks, O’Malley seemed to call back to this kind of supportive civility, praising the level of discourse for the entire debate, especially the party’s refusal to denigrate women, make racist comments about immigrants or trash an entire global religion.
It was enough to make you want to watch the three of them do this a dozen more times — Chafee and Webb are both done, even if they’re going to continue to move for a while through some political galvanic response — just to see what policies and disclosures it would push them toward and how much they might make this primary enjoyable. It would be interesting to see what happens over several debates among people whose idea of a rejoinder is more substantive than asking to be sent to Washington because they’ve spent the least amount of time there out of all the candidates. It’s sincerely amusing to hear jokes that don’t come with a pause at the beginning for your mind to load the “Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:” part of the subject field of the email they came from. O’Malley even made something like that point himself, leaning out over the podium a little and calling for Democratic Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz to schedule more of these.
Neither he nor anyone else should hold their breath, since the person at the tiller during 2014’s cinderella electoral defeat (“The National Campaign That Was About Nothing”) has apparently taken a page from the Franklin Mint and decided that limited-time offers on debates will only make them go up in value. That’s true, but probably only in terms of insulating Hillary Clinton from the potential for gaffes. Why get lots of free advertising and primetime exposure for your own ideas when you can just cede your half of the public dialogue to the people you’re trying to stop instead?
As it is, the current scheduling of Democratic debates is somewhat less people-friendly than the old construction notice in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was “on display at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying BEWARE OF THE LEOPARD.” There are six of these, and only six, all apparently occurring on different Leap Days at an hour that ESPN 8 (The Ocho) typically reserves for qualifying rounds of Aberdeen Amateur Caber Toss and that MSNBC devotes to Lockup. We can’t have nice things, which is why, for the foreseeable future, we can watch more Republican debates.