‘Hillary Won!’ ‘No, Bernie Won!’ So Who REALLY Won the Debate?
Let’s start with an easier question: who lost the first Democrat debate this week in Las Vegas?
The most grotesque loser was Rhode Island political scion Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican who became an Independent before hooking up with the Democrats. The 62-year-old erstwhile senator and governor looked vaguely mummified and sounded as confused as his party-switching past. When asked why he voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, that invisible wall between commercial banks and investment banks, the flustered candidate burbled a series of wimpy excuses: his father had just died, he had just taken his seat as a rookie senator, etc., etc. If he hasn’t mastered the art of political prevarication at his age, he never will. Give this poor gentleman the hook.
Former U.S. Marine and senator Jim (“I need more time!”) Webb wasted his airtime whining about his inability to command more airtime. He may have been a war hero, but whiners usually don’t make it to the White House. If he had the requisite political skill, he would have inserted himself into the conversation instead of grumbling repeatedly that he couldn’t. Color him eliminated.
Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who has struggled to gain momentum as a presidential candidate, is a man of serious and generally reasonable progressive ideas. But his seriousness shaded into moroseness on the debate podium. He gained strength toward the end, but he could use a shot of ebullience if he wants to connect with the electorate and rise in the polls. Maybe he and Donald Trump should be lined up side-by-side for a partial ego transfusion; both men would benefit.
That leaves us with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, the two heavy hitters among the Democrat hopefuls. Both candidates gave it their best: Bernie was loud, passionate and rough-hewn, just the way his fans love him. He even displayed a chivalrous streak, as he dismissed the kerfuffle over Hillary’s e-mails with a blunt, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!”
That was vintage Bernie. He had a chance to go for the jugular, but he took the high road so we could “talk about real issues.” Did he help or hurt himself by doing so? Probably both. His gesture revealed a principled man who could rise above competitive pettiness — and probably cemented his viability as a potential Clinton running mate. But that’s part of the problem: he had a chance to expose his opponent’s vulnerable underside and pin her to the mat, but he relented. (Clinton’s credibility IS a “real issue,” Bernie.)
The former First Lady, senator and secretary of state breezed through the debate like the poised, polished, practiced pro that she is. Her admirers lauded her performance as “presidential;” her detractors tended to use adjectives like “rehearsed” and “robotic.”
She wasn’t as charitable as Sanders when it came to pulling punches: she accused the Vermont senator of being soft on gun control — a hot-button issue in the wake of numerous mass shootings. Sanders defended himself with a nuanced response, but Hillary won that round. She also took a mild dig at her opponent’s “democratic socialism” by reminding him — and us — that we’re not Denmark. True enough. Score another point for the liberal establishment’s favorite candidate.
So who really won the debate? Earnest, emotional, scruffy populist Bernie Sanders or icy-cool elite progressive Hillary Clinton? If you believe the pundit class, it was Hillary all the way: a knockout. If you believe the polls, Bernie obliterated the competition.
How can two audiences have viewed the same debate and come away with diametrically opposed impressions? Both candidates gave their fans exactly what they wanted: an authentic, impassioned, morally outraged Sanders who rose above tit-for-tat pettiness… and a poised, energized, articulate Clinton back in fighting trim after weathering some unflattering controversies.
How did The New Moderate view the two leading contenders? I like Sanders’ bluntness and no-BS approach to simmering domestic issues (i.e., the wealth gap that just keeps growing until we’re looking at an essentially feudal America down the road). But he strikes me as a one-note candidate: the voice of Occupy Wall Street. Yes, Wall Street could probably use a good occupation, but a functioning U.S. president needs to see beyond the barricades.
As for Mrs. Clinton, I give her credit for a bright and lively persona — composed, smart, graceful under pressure, mature and able to seem as if she’s not taking herself too seriously. But let’s get real: how can a plutocrat-friendly elitist convince down-and-out Americans that she’s one of them? Is it all smoke and mirrors? I’m beginning to think of Clinton as the Wizard of Oz in reverse: the image of a folksy, down-to-earth, “relatable” candidate projected onto the big screen by the machinating bully behind the curtain.
So who won the debate? Let’s call it a tie between Sanders and Clinton: they both delivered what they needed to deliver, even if Bernie missed his big chance for a knockout. Would I vote for either of them? Not without holding my nose, although anything is possible.
If The New Moderate can’t wholeheartedly endorse any of the Democrats who mounted the stage in Las Vegas this week, does anyone look like a tolerable prospect for 2016? Any of the Republicans, perhaps? Not unless you can clone Dwight D. Eisenhower and zap him to presidential age within the span of a year.
Who, then? Will a real presidential candidate please stand up? Maybe the folks who paid for a particularly touching commercial during the debate had the right idea. “Joe, run.” Biden for president? We could do worse.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.