The American People.
On Tuesday evening, five of the six declared Democratic Presidential Candidates lined up on a stage and delivered a truly resounding victory for democracy, the Democratic Party and America. The only candidate not there was Lawrence Lessig. Lessig most certainly should have been invited and should have been allowed to compete in this debate; after all, they had a sixth podium in the wings in the highly unlikely case that Vice President Joe Biden announced a Presidential bid and decided to show up. Despite this small mishap and the backstage drama between DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and Vice Chair Tulsi Gabbard, the debate went off without a hitch and provided a deep contrast to the debates in the crowded GOP field.
While the Republican debates were short on issues and policy and long on insults and lies; the democratic debate highlighted the issues and left the drama and name calling completely out. Each candidate was allowed to broadcast their brand of democratic politics and put forward their ideas on a stage that valued them as equals. With varying success.
Jim Webb was an interesting candidate. On one hand he seemed very genuine but on the other seemed to far afield on some issues. His stance on affirmative action seemed to think that only black americans face systems of oppression and discrimination in our society. While our history with slavery and Jim Crow provides a compelling case for affirmative action, other ethnic and racial minorities have just as much a right to argue for affirmative action. Webb also seemed at one point to parrot near-Republican talking points on climate change. In his allotted time, Webb focused less on solutions or policy standards and more on how futile American efforts would be without India and China coming along. I do not dispute that fact, however this is a line similar to Republican talking points that it is futile to do anything without these nations as well. Yes we need a global effort. No America doesn’t need these countries to act. In fact America would be on moral high ground if it adopted strict measures and could use this to bring more nations to the table.
Lincoln Chaffey was just weird. In all respect to him and his ideas; his performance just came off strange. At times it was like he had an internal bet going with some friends as to how many times he could bring up the Iraq War. He also came the closest to throwing insults with his implication that he was the one with the highest ethical standards. A remark that Clinton, the target of this veiled attack, brushed off easily. But this high ethics was also called into question on a couple of votes he took in the senate. As a defense, Chaffey said that the votes were both incredibly lopsided and that for one he had just been appointed to the senate and his father had died. Now, on a human level I can sympathize with Chaffey on the loss of his father and the whirlwind that ensued a rise from Mayor to Senator. But this does not explain why you would vote yes. I would think it totally defensible and legitimate to not vote on those measures or to vote present. Especially since these were such important votes. The people of Rhode Island and America are not week-served by a senator voting for important legislation on a whim. But even this would have made sense if the outcome of the bill was in question. As a Republican (at the time) Senator in a Republican controlled Senate, it would be more logical if the vote count was close and Chaffey was heavily whipped on the vote. But one vote was 99-1 and the other was a high landslide with ninety plus votes in favor. With such dramatic and bipartisan consensus on these bills, wouldn’t it have made more sense to just let that vote go? Seems suspect for a champion of high morals.
Martin O’Malley did well; one could almost argue it was a winning performance from the perspective that he was able to establish himself. I think he showed himself to be of near the same caliber of Sanders and Clinton and made a somewhat compelling case for himself with his executive knowledge and his relative outsider status to Washington. As an Environmentalist, I was especially gratified with his plan to go to all renewables by 2050; the first proposal of that type I had heard from a candidate. I think my main problem with O’Malley was that he just didn’t do anything exciting. He didn’t generate the kind of excitement that would have made him stand out in the crowd. He didn’t have a “Fiorina moment”. Im sum he did well, looked presidential, and didn’t mess up. He established himself as a mainstream alternative to Hillary Clinton should her campaign flounder.
What to say about Bernie Sanders? Bernie was one of the winners of that night. He was able to stand up to the questioning of his socialist label, was able to provide a clear contrast if not on issues, then on policy all while retaining some of the “nonpolitician” style he has demonstrated throughout his career. Perhaps Sanders’ most shining moment was when he defied political norms and defended Secretary Clinton on her email use, uttering the now famous phrase, “We don’t care about your damn emails.” It was a rare moment; Sanders would have been totally in the right to attack Clinton on the emails or to at least not deliver so robust a defense. But by choosing to focus on issues and not politics; on the cares of the American people and not the media and political class, Sanders showed himself to be a rare politico: one willing to forego a political hit to focus on the real issues. It was a moment that, in my opinion, highlighted why Sanders is so popular with many on the left. Sanders represents a dramatic change in our politics as an independent and avowed democratic socialist but also as a politician willing to advance the issues over his own political gain. And Sanders was rewarded for this moment and the debate as a whole. Focus groups done by most media outlets made Sanders the winner and Sanders’ campaign boasted over a million dollars in donations that very night. Sanders was the most talked about candidate on social media and searched on the internet. All in all, a very good night for on of the race’s more unconventional candidates.
With the eyes of a nation and the media on the debate, most cared less about Sanders or O’Malley or other candidates and instead wondered aloud how Secretary Clinton would do. Would she have a humanizing moment? Would she gaffe? What did she need to do to win the debate? Amongst the list were mutually contradictory statements that at best revealed the double standard of a woman in political life. However, Clinton held her own very well and had a very good night. She was able to differentiate from Sanders on guns, and was able to repudiate his socialism by supporting small businesses. Clinton got a boost from Sanders in the aforementioned “damn emails” comment and was also able to simultaneously cast off questions about her emails and dismiss Lincoln Chaffey’s candidacy by simply saying “no” when asked if she wanted to comment on his implication she was unethical. It was a bright spot for Clinton. It was no wonder that despite the focus groups, many in the media hailed Clinton as the winner of the debate: with no unforced errors and some bright spots, she was able to maintain her status as frontrunner and even potentially force Vice President Joe Biden from declaring.
With the debate having in some ways three candidates performing well and “winning” it was time to look at the Democratic Party as the winner of the night. In their premiere debate they showed themselves to be above the petty politics on display in the GOP and showed they were capable of leading the country.But more than just the Democratic Party winning, the American people won. We got to see functioning adults in the political realm that understand the issues, understand the policy and just disagree on the path from A to B. With such an incredible night watched by so many people— 15 million— it is a shame that there will only be six democratic debates. Hopefully the DNC sees this for the wild success that it was and expand the number of debates.