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Democratic Debate: A Glimmer Of Hope In A Mean Political Season

Members of the media work as Hillary Clinton speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (David Becker/AP)
Members of the media work as Hillary Clinton speaks during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. (David Becker/AP)
This article is more than 3 years old.

The first thing we do, let's fire all the pundits.

Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was a meaty, high-minded affair, but that was no thanks to CNN’s political team, which tried its hardest to get the candidates to name-call each other and worse. For nearly an hour before the candidates took the stage, Anderson Cooper and his merry band of prognosticators took turns with breathless pre-game hype. Would Hillary Clinton’s opponents launch a “frontal attack” on her, or just use code words like “consistent” to remind voters that she’s untrustworthy? Would Bernie Sanders display his fabled flashes of temper? Would anyone call Clinton a flip-flopper on trade? And Joe Biden: Would he or wouldn’t he? The Cubs-Cardinals game analysis was more dignified. Not to mention the toe-fungus medication ad at the top of the hour.

Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was a meaty, high-minded affair...

When the five candidates finally were allowed to speak for themselves, the quality of the conversation kicked up several notches. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commanded the stage, easily displaying her superior knowledge of foreign policy, criticizing her chief rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, on gun control, reminding the Democratic Socialist that “we are not Denmark,” and being first to bring up issues of concern to women such as work-family balance.

Sanders too was compelling in bashing Wall Street speculators who crashed the economy, drawing a contrast with Clinton’s more moderate attitude toward the big banks. He didn’t back away from his leftist ideology, saying he was not a “casino capitalist” and calling for “a political revolution.” (But if he wants to tap into a rising tide of activism he had better do more to register the new voters who are swarming to his campaign rallies.)

The other three candidates each had their moments, though former Rhode Island Gov. and Sen. Lincoln Chafee often seemed out of his depth. Former Virginia Sen. James Webb’s opposition to affirmative action and support for an “all of the above” energy program — a euphemism for being pro-coal — probably is too conservative for this Democratic primary electorate. Martin O’Malley did himself the most good, deflecting criticism of his leadership as mayor of a racially polarized Baltimore by focusing on his achievements as governor of Maryland, and positioning himself as a credible candidate for vice president.

Democratic presidential candidates, from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)
Democratic presidential candidates, from left, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee take the stage before the CNN debate Tuesday in Las Vegas. (John Locher/AP)

Clinton had two terrific moments, one of them courtesy of Sanders, who in a flash of authentic frustration with the media’s constant harping on Clinton’s email woes growled to great applause, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” Clinton laughed, said “Me, too! Me Too!” When she shook hands with Sanders, she clinched the most-played clip of the night.

The other high point for Clinton came in response to a question about paid family leave from CNN’s Dana Bash, asking her to respond to Republican Carly Fiorina, the only other woman in the race, who opposes family leave. Seeming to channel Fiorina, the CNN reporter asked, sarcastically, “Really? Another government program? Is that what you’re proposing?” Clinton swung back hard, saying “We should not be paralyzed” into inaction on crucial public investments just because Republicans attack big government.  Then she called out Republican hypocrisy. “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and trying to take down Planned Parenthood,” she said as the audience got to its feet. “I’m sick of it!” Incredibly, no one else had yet mentioned Planned Parenthood, subject of relentless attack by Republicans in Congress intent on defunding the women’s health service.

Clinton also pressed her advantage with liberal Democratic voters on gun control, the one issue where she is unarguably more progressive than Sanders. When the Vermont senator tried to explain why he voted five times against the Brady gun bill by saying the legislation was “large and complicated,” she responded crisply. “It wasn’t that complicated to me.”

[The candidates] were sober, substantive and in stark contrast to the buffoonish Republicans in their last two debates.

The questioners gamely tried to provoke controversy with queries about the Black Lives Matter movement and whether undocumented immigrants should be covered by the Affordable Care Act. Anderson Cooper asked the military veteran Webb if Sanders was qualified to be commander in chief when he had applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War. But the candidates were having none of it. They were sober, substantive and in stark contrast to the buffoonish Republicans in their last two debates.

O’Malley summed it up best in his closing statement. In two long hours of policy debate, he reminded viewers, “you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious beliefs.” For Democrats, Tuesday was a night to be proud.

The really good news for Democrats is that 15.3 million Americans watched the debate on CNN, and nearly another million streamed it by computer. That’s a record for a Democratic presidential debate. And for that, ironically, the party can thank Donald Trump, who had made political debates must-see TV.

Renée Loth covers news, politics and architecture for Cognoscenti. Her column appears every two weeks. 

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Renée Loth Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Renée Loth writes about news, politics and architecture for Cognoscenti. Her column appears regularly. She is also the editor of Architecture Boston magazine, and a columnist for The Boston Globe.

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