Dust-up in the Desert: A Review of the First Democratic Debate
As I did for the first Republican debate, I am going to do a review of the Dems first debate from Nevada. Things I am considering in this review 1) poise, 2) articulation of ideals 3) electability 4) likeability, 5) bi-partisan appeal.
The Firebrand: Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders had been gathering support in the past few months, growing from cult hero of college sophomores, to bonafide contender for the Democractic nomination. At the debate he needed to walk a very precarious line; show his electability while keeping up his trademark angry classism. I'm not sure he delivered on either. Bernie has always been an odd presence. Angry, brooding, and cerebral. He was not bad, per se, but he also wasn't terribly strong. He struggled mightly to justify his position on gun ownership, and was even shakier when grilled about his statements that he was not a capitalist. With that being said, he presented some talking points, and quotable quipsThe fans of Bernie aren't going to abandon him, come hell or high water, but I'm not sure he made many new believers from this nights performance.
Through-line: A democratic socialists trying to shape his fire into something at least slightly more palatable to the moderate and independent voters.
Strengths: He is kind of like the liberal Donald Trump. People who are pissed off (about different issues, of course) generally really identify with his off-with-their-heads-type rhetoric.
Weaknesses: He has a strong following among the ultra-liberal wing of the democratic party, but very little appeal in any other demographic. Bernie might have won if he had run in 2008 when everyone was furious with the wall-street elite for shaking down the american people's investment portfolios, but he probably isn't very likely now.
Debate Grade: C+
Forecast: He will win New Hampshire, and maybe a few other Nor'easter states, but not enough to really put a scare in HIllary.
The Dark Horse: Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley is casting himself as the liberal alternative to Bernie Sanders. He seems to want to be seen as more liberal than Hillary, but not so much you can't bring him home to mom. Kind of a "I'm like Bernie, but electabile" approach. For that, he did a pretty good job. O'Malley is a smooth operator; good-looking, relatively articulate, and a decent record as Mayor and Governor. There's a strangness to his debating though. He feels almost robotic. The smiles felt forced, the fury was delivered with a dullness in his eyes. With all that being said his main objective in the debate was to introduce himself as a viable third option, which he did. It wasn't a home run by any stretch, but was probably a decent single to left field.
Through-line: A dyed-in-the-wool liberal trying to ride his youth, looks and energy to a nomination.
Strengths: He is the youngest person on the stage by about a century. He appears more vibrant than his opponents and has the good fortune of escaping the bitter taste most people have about Washington.
Weakness: To really catipult himself, he would have needed to electrify, which he didn't do. He really doesn't have a strong "camp" yet; just a smattering of voters who don't want Bernie or Hillary.
Debate Grade: B-
Forecast: I think his stock will continue to rise, and he will end up as a viable 3 alternative, maybe even upending Bernie for second place, but won't touch Hillary.
The Orthodox Centrist: Lincoln Chafee
Lincoln Chafee is a guy who has a great resume and some very good ideas. He is also a guy who had the worst debate performance I have seen of anyone on the Republican or Democrat side. This makes me sad as he has some views that are in-line with my own. But from this train-wreck of a debate performance, he killed any notion that he may be a viable candidate. He was hesitant, inarticulate, nervous, inconsistent, and, at times, pitiable. The line about why he voted for a bill he would later oppose was cringe-worthy "my dad just died...it was my very first vote..." fill in a handful of other ineffectual excuses here. Yikes. The sad part is, this could possibly have been turned into something positive had he said "you know, I was just learning my craft. Look how far I've come since thing. I have so much more experience now than I did at that time. I'm a wiser man." Or anything other than "feel bad for me my dad died" or "It was my very first vote". His "I'm a block of granite" quote while being a republican, then an independent, then a democrat would also have been laughable, had it not been so painful to watch.
Through-line: A long shot candidate who just got much much longer.
Strengths: Like I said, he actually does have some good ideas. He is someone who can reach across the aisle and work with conservatives. He has a strong track record as Governor.
Weaknesses: None of the strengths matter to a hill of beans after that performance. Stick a fork in his campaign. Its done.
Debate Grade: Do you even need to ask? F.
Forecast: His funds will dry up long before Iowa and he will be forced to drop out.
The Unorthodox Centrist: Jim Webb
Jim Webb is a bit of an enigma. He is pro-gun, a foreign policy hawk and against affirmative action. He is, in many ways, a throw-back to the Southern Dems of the pre-60s, albeit with some updated stances as culture has changed. With that being said, it does provide for a different perspective. While the other four were generally providing slight variations on perspectives that agree, Jim Webb was offering something starkly different. Unfortunately for him, it didn't translate into "fresh and unique" it came off more as "off-kilter and cranky." Its not as if his message is inherently without appeal to some voters, its just how its present that is the problem. Webb came off as a grumpy complainer, repeatedly criticizing moderator Anderson Cooper for not getting enough time. At one point, Cooper even pointed out he is wasting what little time he has complaining about his lack of time. He then went on to...complain more about not having enough time. When not bitching, he seemed smart but distant, astute on foreign policy matters, but cold, and unengaging. On the bright side, he did highlight two unique and strong aspects of his personal story; his wife being a Vietnamese refugee who learned English, went to law school and is now living the American dream, as well as his impressive resume in the armed forces. These two stories appeal to different groups, which can be a good thing.
Through-line: A former Republican who still has vestiges of his conservative heritage, while adopting some progressive policies as he has evolved.
Strengths: Certainly the most unique person in the running, both from a policy perspective, and personally. Appeals to a subset of voters Dems don't typically appeal to any more.
Weaknesses: Its not that he's not bright. Its not that he can't form a cogent point. He's just so...boring. Cold. Surly. His lack of charisma is a huge roadblock for his campaign.
Debate Grade: D+
The Front Runner: Hillary Clinton
Typically a debate is, in many ways, nothing but a liability for a front runner. Since they already in the lead, there's not much to gain, but there is plenty of time and opportunity to say something stupid and derail your whole campaign. It happend to Howard Dean. It happend to Rick Perry. Contrary to the typical pattern, this debate was an absolute home run for Hillary that significantly helped recapture the democrat base's faith and bolster her appeal to anyone else who may have been watching. She was calm, confident, funny, eloquent, and unflappable. Even when the dreaded email/Benghazi controversies came up she managed to spin them into a chance to needle the republicans as petty and self-serving. In my own personal opinion, I was very luke-warm on Hillary before this debate, but it was hard not to like her afterward. Even those who don't like her would be hard pressed to say she didn't have a good night if they are being honest with themselves.
Through-line: A front runner who reasserted her status with a near flawless debate performance.
Strengths: Huge warchest of funds, name recognition, an outstanding first debate, and a very strong base.
Weakness: There is a chance the nagging scandals derail the momentum she has going. Stranger things has happened.
Debate Grade: A
Forecast: She wins every state outside of the Northeast and gets the nomination easily.