A Look at the First Democratic Debate

By Sammy Smith

For the first time during this election season, the five Democratic presidential nominees debated Tuesday night in Las Vegas. In a debate that certainly wasn’t as spirited as the Republican debate, Democratic voters got to watch the front-runner, Hillary Clinton, and the surging Bernie Sanders go head-to-head several times in what was a battle for supremacy atop the Democratic polls. Here are my takeaways from Tuesday night.

Lincoln Chafee

Where do I start with Lincoln Chafee? At this point, the former US senator and Rhode Island governor couldn’t win an election to be president of his local neighborhood watch program. That is how abysmal Chafee’s debate performance was.

During the beginning of the debate, Chafee compared himself to a piece of granite during his political life. Once a Republican, then an Independent, and now a Democrat, Chafee has been anything but granite in terms of the political labels he has carried.

When asked about his vote to support the removal of Glass-Steagall, Chafee fumbled the question, made excuses, and quite frankly never recovered after.

In no way did Chafee distinguish himself from the other candidates, and he even seemed lost on the stage. I would dare to say that nothing he did Tuesday night interested Democratic voters in anyway.

Already struggling to gain any traction in the polls, I would not be surprised if Chafee dropped out of the race.

Jim Webb

Let me get this straight. Jim Webb did not have a horrible performance; he just didn’t belong on the stage.

As the only person touting moderate ideals Tuesday night, the former US senator from Virginia failed to connect with Democratic voters because the party has left him behind. Democrats are becoming more progressive, and a moderate seems to have no place in this primary.

Webb, a former Republican, showed some of his old stripes in a few of his answers, and it is for that reason that he turned off Democratic voters. For example, Webb’s stance on climate change is reminiscent of what we heard during the last Republican debate.

Webb’s strength was supposed to be his military background, but even on foreign policy, the decorated war hero didn’t shine.

Webb, like Chafee, has not done well in any polls, and he didn’t do anything to change that. If this was the Democratic Party of old, I think Webb would have had a shot, but today, not so much.

Martin O’Malley

O’Malley could have been the breakout candidate last night, and he had every opportunity to do so. It just didn’t happen for him. His performance was decent, but without a signature moment, he left voters with nothing to mull over.

Listening to the former Maryland governor, you would think that Maryland is a progressive utopia. With that said, he did a good job on selling his work in his native state to voters. However, he had moments where he sort of disappeared into the background.

O’Malley’s strength is clearly climate change, and he dominated that discussion. It just wasn’t enough to save himself from mediocrity.

What O’Malley did well was challenge the two front-runners on several issues, including gun control and Wall Street. He even won a couple of exchanges. However, when you aren’t polling well and you did everything fine but nothing spectacular, it doesn’t bode well for your campaign.

O’Malley needed to breakout if he had any chance of winning this primary, and that didn’t happen. He did, however, put himself in prime position to be a possible running mate for the winner of the primary, so it will be interesting to see how this plays out going forward.

Hillary Clinton

In a much more civil debate than what we saw from the Republicans, the front-runner left the stage Tuesday night relatively unscathed. She was the most poised of all the candidates. And even though she had some slip ups, she got through most of the debate without being attacked.

Clinton –former First Lady, US senator, and Secretary of State— looked as though she was the most polished politician on stage. She came out of the gate firing on all cylinders. She, along with Martin O’Malley, attacked Senator Bernie Sanders on gun control, and early on, it looked as if she would run away with the debate.

Then, CNN’s moderator Anderson Cooper started asking the tough questions, and Hillary tailed off. Her weakest point might have been when she was asked about changing her mind on so many of her policy positions. The secretary responded by saying that she has been consistent with her values, but she has changed her mind as any human being would. She also proclaimed that she is a progressive, despite admitting to be a moderate to Ohio voters last month.

Perhaps Secretary Clinton’s biggest blunder of the night was when she said, “I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York.” Hillary has been highly criticized for being funded by Wall Street banks, and she repeatedly dodged questions about Wall Street, often referring to states’ rights.

To sum up Secretary Clinton’s night, she was very steady. She was vague on her economic policy and sounded a lot like Mitt Romney in 2012 when she said, “I have a five point economic plan” but failed to outline specifics. However, it was her strength on gun control and some points on foreign policy that kept her afloat.

Several media pundits will say Clinton won Tuesday night’s debate. In my view, she didn’t do anything to hurt herself, but she didn’t help herself either. Being the front-runner, I would not expect her to see a rise in the polls.

Bernie Sanders

Vermont senator Bernie Sanders finally got to introduce himself to the world. Early on, he fell flat on his face.

The self-described Democratic Socialist was attacked by O’Malley and Clinton on gun control, and he lost that exchange badly, but I would dare to say that Bernie woke up after that mishap.

Sanders was surprisingly strong on foreign policy, and he humbly bragged about being the only candidate on stage who did not support the Iraq War. He even put to rest questions about him being a pacifist.

Senator Sanders’ delivered the best line of the night when he came to Hillary Clinton’s defense, telling her, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” He did the most unpopular, but necessary thing to do when he criticized the media’s role in Clinton’s email scandal.

No surprise here, but Bernie was the strongest on the economy, income-inequality, and Wall Street regulation. He outlined some specifics on how he would tax Wall Street speculation and how that would pay for tuition-free public colleges, expand Social Security, and support a single payer Healthcare system.

Sanders went toe-to-toe with Clinton during several exchanges, and dare I say, he won the vast majority of them. He possibly had the second best line in the debate. In response to Clinton’s Wall Street comment, Sanders said, “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”

Sanders struck a nerve with undecided Democratic voters when he spoke about getting money out of politics, and it was that combined with specifics that separated himself from Clinton by the tiniest of margins.

The past few months, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders surging in the polls, and after Tuesday night’s debate, I would expect that trend to continue.

Final Thoughts

This debate just solidified what we already knew. The race for the Democratic nomination is a two way race. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have solidified their respective spots on top of the field.

The real loser in this debate was Vice President Joe Biden. Biden, still mulling a presidential run, needed a bad night for Hillary Clinton to have a shot at winning the nomination. Now, Biden’s possible campaign is in political limbo because there is no spot for him in this race.

Overall, Tuesday night’s debate was very different than what we saw from the Republicans. There weren’t as many heated exchanges and personal attacks. The Democratic nominees were very issue oriented, and for that reason, Democratic voters were the real winners.

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