The Democratic Party held its first presidential debate last night.
In my view the clear winner was Hillary Clinton.
Going into the debate I felt that optics and persona would trump pure politics. After all the political leanings of the two key contestants was pretty clear. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton, the moderate left leaning Democrat with a hawkish streak versus surging challenger Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist. O’Malley, Chafe and Webb serving as nattily attired placeholders.
As far as I was concerned there were only two key questions that needed to be addressed:Could Hillary Clinton give a performance that would soothe the fears within the party that her campaign was on the ropes? Could Bernie Sanders look presidential?
The answer to both was an emphatic: “Yes.”
I thought Hillary Clinton gave a masterful performance. She demonstrated a clear command of the issues. Cool, calm, strong and confident…she knew the points that she wanted to make and artfully inserted them into the conversation. As the clear frontrunner she was challenged from all sides. But unlike past appearances where she looked annoyed or angry, as if she would rather be anywhere else...last night she actually looked like she was having a good time.
I found noteworthy the manner in which she also went out of her way to tie herself to President Obama. Clinton referred to several examples where they worked together to get things done. She spoke highly of the president’s accomplishments and of how she would continue his work. To me the point was clear: “Note to Vice President Biden. There is no room for you to enter this race. I’m not going anywhere…and the position to the immediate left of your boss is mine.”
Bernie was Bernie. Banging out the same policy points that have been on his play list for decades. Bernie is all about income equality and equal opportunity. Win or lose he will forever be a thorn in the side of Wall Street billionaires, big banks, big pharma and big money politics: “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street." He said. "Wall Street regulates congress.” He stumbled a bit when he got away from his stump speech and Clinton hurt him by bringing up his five votes against the Brady bill. Bernie just shrugged off the blows and shouldered on.
So confident was Sanders in his message that he even took it upon himself to bail out Clinton. When moderator Anderson Cooper started in on the hubbub surrounding Clinton’s emails Sanders said: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails….enough of the emails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America."
I believe that both Clinton and Sanders helped themselves. Clinton did exactly what she needed to do to calm the fears of her supporters. She will remain the clear frontrunner. Sanders’ performance will fire up his already rabid following; infusing them incontrovertible evidence that he CAN be the next president.
One final note.
I think the real winner last night was the Democratic Party.
As expected last night’s event did not have the entertainment value of the two Republican debates. Last night you didn’t see any of the behavior that we have come to expect from the right. Absent was sophomoric food fight and name calling. Absent was the carnival atmosphere in which engaging in fear mongering, racism, bigotry and personal attacks garners you a standing ovation.
Last night was about serious adults having a serious conversation about serious issues.
Last night Democrats schooled Republicans in the arts of civil discourse and governance.
It may not have been good entertainment...but it was very good politics.