By the far the most experienced debater, Hillary Clinton faced high expectations for the first Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential race. She met them and more, deflecting the few attacks lobbed her way and portraying herself as the best candidate to be commander-in-chief and to build on President Barack Obama’s legacy.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont succeeded in clearly – and loudly – laying out his populist crusade against inequality, rapacious billionaires and “casino capitalism.” But he didn’t broaden his support beyond the left wing of the party, or position himself as someone who could win the general election.
Among the three other candidates on the Las Vegas stage Tuesday night, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley came the closest to a Carly Fiorina-like breakout performance. Now we know why he is pushing so hard for more debates. Unfortunately for him, the next one isn’t until Nov. 14 in Iowa, and there are only two more on the schedule before the caucuses and primaries begin.
Former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia demonstrated why they’re going nowhere. Chafee will be most remembered for his lame excuses for Senate votes he apparently now regrets, and for calling himself a “block of granite” on the issues. Webb used his valuable air time to whine about how little air time he was getting.
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Overall, voters had to notice the stark difference with the two Republican debates, much of which were mean-spirited circuses. Democrats discussed issues, in a civil manner.
Most of the attention, properly, focused on Clinton and Sanders.
Sanders is trying to rebuild the coalition of young people and progressives who helped Obama defeat Clinton in 2008. But rather than advocate for “hope and change,” Sanders called for a “political revolution,” and made no apologies for being a “democratic socialist,” saying America should be more like the social democracies in Scandinavia.
That won’t win over swing voters. As Clinton replied, “We are not Denmark.”
Clinton and O’Malley pressed Sanders on his Senate votes against major gun control measures that most Democrats support. Sanders answered that he represents a rural state where voters own guns. That weak explanation suggests he has taken a politically expedient path, rather than leading.
Sanders didn’t go after Clinton aggressively. In fact, just as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy gave Clinton a gift by saying that the GOP-led Benghazi investigation is designed to hurt her politically, Sanders presented her with a gift on the scandal over her use of private email while secretary of state.
“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said, drawing the biggest applause of the night. “Enough of the emails; let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
“Thank you, Bernie,” Clinton replied, laughing and shaking his hand.
Clinton largely fended off criticism that she has flip-flopped, is too much of a Washington insider and is too close to Wall Street, though these still seem like her biggest vulnerabilities among Democratic voters.
She played up the fact that she would be the nation’s first female president – perhaps a little too much – and made sure to emphasize family-friendly issues that should appeal to many voters.
So far, she is successfully walking a tightrope by capitalizing on her track record in politics, yet still claiming she can change a gridlocked Washington, and separating herself from Obama, but not trashing him.
At the end of the night, the state of the Democratic race hadn’t changed. Clinton is the front-runner. Sanders is the darling of the left. The also-rans remain so.
And Vice President Joe Biden still isn’t running. If he is waiting for Clinton to stumble badly before jumping into the campaign, he will have longer – maybe too long.