The Thinker

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #1

Am I the only one bothered because you had to subscribe to CNN to watch the first Democratic Party presidential debate live last night? As best I could tell you could not watch the debate on cnn.com, at least not beyond a short free “preview” mode. You could watch it on cnngo.com, but you had to authenticate with your provider to get the debate stream, which meant CNN had to punch your ticket. My wife occupied the TV last night so I used the DVR to record it, but watched what I could online. With 15 million viewers just on CNN and lots more watching it online, the web stream stopped on me from time to time, which was frustrating. As for those too poor to afford cable or satellite TV, they were effectively disenfranchised. Debates should be made publicly available to all when they are broadcast. They should always mirrored on a C-SPAN channel and streamed on c-span.org if nowhere else. In addition at least one broadcast channel in each market should carry it.

For those of us moneyed enough to watch the debate live, the first Democratic presidential debate was quite a contrast from the first two Republican debates. Civility ruled, and even friendliness was evident at times between candidates. Five candidates is also a much fewer than eleven or sixteen. Jim Webb had a point that he was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise, but both Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee were also frequently marginalized too. It was mostly the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders debate. Each got about half an hour of airtime, nothing to complain about in a two-hour debate. If there were ruffled feathers, it was mostly from candidates toward the moderators for cutting them off.

A lot of coaching and practice certainly helped. For Clinton, the practice was mostly an exercise in personality refinement. For Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, it was getting up to speed on foreign policy, not one of his strong suits. For Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee it was mostly about introducing themselves to a national audience. Bernie Sanders was new to a lot of viewers, principally the African American audience. Clinton exceeded expectations and succeeded in looking presidential and polished. Kudos go to her makeup artist, who succeeded in subtracting about ten years from her face. At age 74, it was far too late for Sanders, but at least he did not have the expectation that he was supposed to look younger.

The most embarrassing candidate was clearly former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, rarely known or seen outside of Rhode Island. Looks should never disqualify a candidate, but he not only sounded awkward, he looked viscerally awkward. And he was simply not prepared for tough questions. I felt sorry for him after a while because he was so outclassed by the other candidates.

Martin O’Malley modeled the happy white middle-aged Democratic candidate of forty years ago, the sort of candidate we nominated by default in the past because he looked so familiar and harmless. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy but he at least radiated sensibility. Unfortunately, his record as Maryland governor was spotted at best, as was his tenure as Mayor of Baltimore. He was easy to smile at when speaking, but he seemed a bit milquetoast. There just wasn’t anything there that drew you to him as a compelling reason to prefer him to the others.

Jim Webb too was new to most viewers. A one-term senator from Virginia, Webb ran a surprisingly successful quixotic campaign for senate some years back. He resonates strongly with a part of the Democratic Party that has sort of slipped away: the moderate domestically but hawkish militarily type. I think Webb would probably be a pretty good general election candidate, as he may be the only moderate in either party running for president so he would draw independents like crazy. He has sterling credentials and a firm grasp on the commander in chief side of being president. Unfortunately, there is no party for moderates anymore. The Democratic Party though at least embraces moderates. The Republican Party simply spurns them.

As the debate dragged on not only did it become the Hillary vs. Bernie debate but the choice seemed to be pragmatic progressive (Clinton) vs. ideological progressive (Sanders). Clinton impressed me in the debate. She did not make me anxious to vote for her, but she did reduce my anxiety should she win the Democratic nomination. She deftly handled the mostly bogus controversies surrounding her, in one case with the assistance of Sanders. While Clinton was polished, Sanders was too. Eloquent and passionate, he seemed to be the only candidate on the stage that was just being himself. Most observers gave Clinton the edge in the debate, but Sanders raised two million dollars from people after the debate and Google was overrun with queries from people wanting to learn more about socialism. Sanders was not just passionate, but passionately convincing. His long career demonstrates an ability to correctly line up on the issues.

So it should make for an interesting campaign and I look forward to more debates. Clinton proved herself not to be the stereotype projected by her opponents. Sanders doubtlessly got a lot of interest from people who did not know what he is about. Webb, O’Malley and Chafee are on the way out to pasture; they just don’t know it yet. Clinton needs to keep her projection going forward and Sanders needs to see if he can develop a critical mass of progressives to overwhelm Clinton’s natural advantages, principally with blacks and women. It all depends on just how fed up the American people actually are in this election. If the polls are right, Clinton should make no assumptions about a smooth path to the nomination.

 

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