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6 Independent Observations from the First Democratic Debate

by Jay Stooksberry, published

The opening introduction to the Democratic debate was quite telling.

Sounding like a preview to a Monday Night Football game, a cheesy male voice went into great detail about the “faceoff” between the two top contenders: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Then, as if the voice over realized he was about to run out of time, summarized the rest of the candidate pool as “three other political veterans are in the mix.”

Regardless of the coverage disparities, all Democratic candidates (except one) were afforded the opportunity to make their case in front of national audience.

Here’s how it went.

1. Not All Potential Candidates Were Present

Pro-Biden commercials aired during the debate, leaving people with the impression that ol’ Joe might throw his hat in the ring. Biden has been toying with the idea of a run for the last few months. Despite his non-committal nature, he still registers in national polls – even placing third in Iowa.

Biden’s time to commit is quickly running out though – both from a logistical standpoint and a marketing standpoint.

There was one candidate who wished had the opportunity to participate in the debate: Lawrence Lessig. The activist and professor is running a unique and obscure single-issue campaign focusing on reforming campaign finance. Despite being a lesser known Democratic candidate, he managed to raise $1 million from grassroots supporters. Lessig, though a long shot, has garnered a fervent base of activist supporters through social media.

2. Jim Webb Didn't Have a Good Night

Jim Webb demonstrated that being on stage can actually be detrimental to your campaign.

Webb, a decorated veteran and widely-respected senator, didn’t help his own cause. His most consistent contribution to the conversation was his bickering with host Anderson Cooper about his time allotment.

“I’ve been standing over here for 10 minutes trying,” Webb said. “It’s gone back and forth over there.” (Webb pointed to Clinton and Sanders.)

His critiques about disproportionate time allotments was fair: He finished fourth out of five in total time talking. However, when he did have time to talk, he couldn’t stay on topic. He somehow turned a discussion about the Middle East into one about cyber warfare with China. Also, when prompted to name a political enemy, he alluded to a man he killed in combat in an unsettling manner.

3. Lincoln Chafee Has Been an Unrecognized Name for a Reason

Lincoln Chafee was the most underwhelming candidate by far. He only could brag about one accomplishment: “I have no scandals.” The reference might have been his attempt to punch up at Clinton, but it didn’t seem to land.

Chafee appeared nervous during most of the conversation, and only registered 9 minutes and 11 seconds of talking time. (Clinton led the pack with 31:05.) Perhaps if he had more time, he could give his stunning defense of converting to the metric system.

He also provided a very bizarre answer during the discussion of the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal era legislation that placed strict limits on commercial banks and securities firms.

Often cited as one of the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, Glass-Steagall has become a bit of a litmus test for Democrats. Chafee voted to repeal the legislation in 1999. When questioned about his vote, he essentially blamed his vote on his father dying and it being his “first day in Congress.” That excuse may work for a first grader on their first day of school, but voters may not take kindly to the dodge.

4. Martin O’Malley Surprised Many, but Has Too Much Ground to Make Up

The former Maryland governor struggled to get traction entering the debate, but put on an impressive performance. Most commentators were fond of his closing statement.

The problem that O’Malley will face is that the issues he champions – economic inequality, climate change, and financial reforms – have already been commandeered by Sanders, who is far more popular at the moment.

Furthermore, some of his leftist credentials become suspect based on his record, such as the criticism lodged against his zero tolerance policies as mayor of Baltimore. His support of “black lives matter” appears hollow after examining the rates of mass incarceration during his tenure.

The deck is stacked against O’Malley from a numbers perspective. He barely registers a point in national polls. More telling is the fact that he cannot even carry his home state.

5. Normally Articulate, Sanders Flubbed on Guns and Foreign Policy

Those who are attracted to Sanders often cite his commitment to fighting corporate special interests and expanding services that benefit lower and middle class Americans. However, he seemed out of his element when questions about his voting record and foreign policy came up.

With most people concerned about guns following the recent mass shooting in Oregon, Sanders should have expected to address his gun record. Sanders voted against the Brady Bill and a number of other gun control measures championed by Democrats. Sanders defended his record, citing the need to

reach consensus on a sensitive issue. Though a commendable sentiment, many ardent gun control advocates – a significant voting bloc of Democratic voters – will not respond favorably.

On foreign policy, Sanders made a strong indictment of the Iraq War, calling it “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country” – an indirect diss meant for Clinton. Also, he voiced his concerns about a no fly zone in Syria.

But, after that, his ideas became less principled. In an effort to “out-hawk” his peers, Sanders proclaimed, “I am prepared to take this country into war.” The details surrounding this hypothetical war weren’t provided.

When a question about Russian’s involvement in Syria was redirected toward Sanders, he fumbled to find the words: “Well… I think… ummm… Mr. Putin… umm… is going to regret what he is doing.” This was one of a few occurrences where Sanders sounded like a student who didn’t finish his assigned reading from the night before.

Sanders most likely didn’t disappoint his diehard base, but he also did not gain much broader support, which is the goal of these events.

This leads to the ultimate conclusion about the night…

6. Despite Early Struggles, Clinton is the Unquestioned Frontrunner

With her diminishing poll numbers, Clinton needed to assert herself as the frontrunner, which is exactly what she did.

Critics will say she dodged questions about her tendency to flip flop on issues, her recent controversies, and every other criticism launched toward her. However, the thunderous applause following most of her statements is but one of many indications that she resonated with the audience.

Furthermore, Sanders voicing his disgust over

“those damn emails” (namely Clinton’s server controversy) demonstrated one certainty about the Democratic race: Criticizing Hillary will get you nowhere with Democrats.

Clinton exuded the role of the elder stateswoman. She was polished, practiced, and posed. She didn’t come off as defensive, nor did she venture much into an offensive role either. Following the debate, pundits simply doubled down on their portrayal of Clinton as the true frontrunner.

The first Democratic debate was remarkably civil, but the gloves will have to come off eventually.

Opportunities to leverage criticism were mostly avoided. For example, Webb made a name for himself back in 2004 for criticizing the military records of George W. Bush and John Kerry, but gave Sanders a pass for being a conscientious objector to Vietnam.

In his closing statement, O’Malley characterized the exchange as a stark contrast to the GOP debates. He gloats, “You didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of anyone because of their religious beliefs.”

Though a breath of fresh air from the contrarian nature of the recent GOP debates, Democrats will need to eventually draw distinct lines of demarcation during this election. If they don’t, voters should expect to see Clinton’s name on their ballot for the national election.

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