Election 2016: Assessing the Democrats’ Debate Performances
A lot can change in one night.
The first democratic debate has certainly shaken out the field of the candidates. Here’s how the debate will alter each campaigns:
Jim Webb – Sore Loser Out
Jim Webb gave what was undoubtedly the weakest performance of the evening, relying on biography and policy positions well out of step with the Democratic Party to set himself apart. He did set himself apart: as the person least capable of engaging with issues at the level demanded by national debates. Perhaps most baffling of all was his persistent complaint that he was not being given enough talking time. Petulance is unbecoming of any would-be commander-in-chief. It seems he’s had enough time to speak. Time to move over so the real candidates can talk.
Lincoln Chafee – A Baffling Performance
Lincoln Chafee’s performance, while not as pitiful as Webb’s, was certainly the strangest of the night. In a meandering performance on the debate stage, Chafee frequently retread answers he said seconds before, inevitably taking longer and saying less than most of the others on the stage with him. He was also responsible (inadvertently) for the single funniest moment of the debate: when asked why he voted to end the Glass-Steagal banking law (now political poison in a distinctly anti-Wall Street election year). According to Chafee, he voted that way because he was new to the Senate (so we can suppose he voted without reading the bill), having just been appointed to fill his father’s seat (and was thus an apparent beneficiary of nepotism). It could hardly have been less convincing if he had claimed that the dog ate his legislation. Chafee is definitely out.
Martin O’Malley – Looked Presidential, Sounded Boring
Martin O’Malley managed to hold his own, somewhat. He got his history and message out in a clear manner, without making any flubs. But he just didn’t ignite the room. When you are standing in the low single digits in polls you need to do something else. As much as he occasionally tried to point out the moderate differences between himself and Hillary Clinton, much of his message came across as “I would be a great Vice President, Hillary”. He did well enough to get a small bump in the polls. He won’t become a real contender, but his campaign should come off life support.
Bernie Sanders – Lost in Translation
Bernie Sanders had the most to prove in this debate. He has developed a powerful following on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and has even pulled of Hillary in Iowa and New Hampshire according to a few polls. He did that on the back of fiery sermons on the destruction of the middle class, the oppression of the working class, and the ascendance of “casino capitalism”. All of that has made for great theater on the stump. It did not translate all that well on the debate stage. That’s not to say it wasn’t a decent showing. Indeed, Bernie did quite well overall. He was certainly better than the three also-ran candidates. Yet he had to behead the queen if he wanted to take the throne. On that score, he failed.
Hillary Clinton – Coronation Redux
All summer Hillary has been dogged by scandals and a left wing challenger nipping at her heels. Donors and the Democratic establishment have been sweating, worried that the sheer weight of issues would bring their frontrunner down in a death by a thousand political cuts. All of those worries were banished by a (compared to her opponents) bravura performance. Hillary came across as intelligent, clear, steady, and capable. There was no boredom or lethargy. Hell, she was even funny a couple times. The result was a showing that will no doubt calm wavering supporters and fearful donors, and will remind some of the folks who jumped ship to Bernie of why they fell in love with the Clintons in the first place. That said, her use of the Clinton Two-Step (saying a lot while not saying anything) when confronting issues like Benghazi and her emails will not be so easily dispelled in a general election debate. That said, Hillary will get a deserved bump in the polls.
Joe Biden – The Deafening Silence
The long shadow campaign of Joe Biden may be dead before it begins. It was a questionable bet to miss the first national primary debate, and it was a bet the vice president lost. It appears Biden was hoping Hillary would get ganged up on by the other candidates, or perhaps that she would stumble on issues of honesty. She didn’t, and she is riding high. Biden will now face fiercer headwinds from those who are re-convinced of Hillary greatness, and will find fewer supporters fearful of her liabilities. He may still have an in as the only credible “anyone but Hillary” candidate. But if he doesn’t move quickly there won’t be many voters left who haven’t made their piece with a Clinton candidacy.