Last Night’s Democratic Debate Was Inspiring and Substantive (Except for the Parts with Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee)

Two of these things are not like the others...

Two of these things are not like the others…

Tonight’s Democratic debate felt like that first gust of fresh air after being stuck on a transatlantic flight for altogether way too long. The clowning and capering of the last two Republican debates had transformed our ideas of normalcy to something unrecognizable. Of course a bunch of adults would spend three hours pretending to have seen nonexistent videos and creating scary straw men for us to fear. Isn’t that what politicians do?

Well, no. The truth is, politicians are supposed to talk about issues. That’s what happened tonight. Let’s be clear: the debate wasn’t perfect. Very little attention was paid to LGBT issues. Host Anderson Cooper spent the first half an hour trying to incite petty squabbles. And the two conservative Democrats on the stage—the stodgy Jim Webb and the loopy Lincoln Chafee—were not deserving of our time or our attention. (Chafee was out of his league and Webb didn’t seem to understand that he was not running for the Republican nomination.)

But for most of the night, real issues were discussed: income inequality, the Black Lives Matter movement, criminal justice reform. And the candidates didn’t try to pick fights with one another. It was downright civilized.

Hillary Clinton, by any metric, won the night. Even when she was saying something disagreeable to most Democratic voters—she sounded conservative when talking about Edward Snowden, for example, and she sounded old-fashioned when talking about marijuana legalization—she demonstrated a reasonable and authoritative air. She seemed, yes, presidential. Her moment of real passion, a sturdy defense of Planned Parenthood and a refutation of conservative attempts to control the reproductive rights of women, was a truly powerful argument. She didn’t let anyone trample over her, and she was mostly gracious toward her fellow candidates.

Bernie Sanders, too, had a great night. At first, Sanders seemed a little lost, especially on foreign policy. To be fair, he performed abysmally on the topic of gun responsibility, trying to frame it as an issue of rural America versus urban America. That kind of division didn’t work when Sarah Palin talked about the real America, and it certainly won’t court Democrats who are nervous about Sanders’ record on guns. But he was passionate about the economy, and he was smart when talking about war and the PATRIOT Act. On a few occasions, Sanders spoke of his plans for the future, calling on “millions of Americans” who are suddenly going to care about politics and get involved with reforming government. At those moments, he sounded more like an ideologue and less like a politician; one would hope that, if those millions of disaffected Americans didn’t materialize, Sanders would have some sort of a backup plan.

And Martin O’Malley got progressively better and better as the evening went on, ending with an encouraging closing statement that sounded hopeful and inspiring and smart. O’Malley occasionally would disappear for long stretches of the debate, and he at first didn’t sound either confident or particularly lively. But by the end, he had found his voice. He was especially persuasive when talking about gun responsibility, earning the audience’s affection when he crowed about making foes of the NRA.

These three candidates gave the sense that they could debate once a week through the beginning of the Iowa caucuses, and that they’d find new topics to discuss and debate every time. They sounded substantive and passionate and intelligent. There’s not one moment of the Republican debates that didn’t seem smaller in comparison to the Democratic debate tonight. That’s a promising sign for the future.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.