Hillary had to show that she could throw a punch, and take one — and, somehow, that she was a “people person.” Bernie had to show up as something more than a genius radical with rumpled clothes and unkempt curls. The other three guys needed a Carly Fiorina moment to stay in the game.
The first Democratic presidential debate pitted frontrunner Hillary Clinton against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose poll numbers are nipping at her heels in some primary states; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee.
Did it put us to sleep, as Donald Trump predicted? Nope. Good thing, because that would have meant missing the best line of the night, courtesy of Sen. Sanders, offering Ms. Clinton some scandal relief: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” In fact, it was a relief to see five politicians slug it out on policy issues without the whole thing devolving into a slugfest a la the Republicans.
In addition, unlike the unruly and shifting Republican field in which the frontrunners have never held elected office, there’s no outsider in this race, unless one counts Mr. Sanders, who labels himself a “democratic socialist.”
All five candidates have records as elected officials on which to run, or run from. That kept the evening somewhat freer of bluster and speculative bloviating — though most showed themselves to be inartful dodgers when answering the most straightforward of questions.
Throughout the evening, each was forced to justify changing, flip-flopping or evolving positions; they illuminated why they voted how they did in Congress or defended questionable policies enacted as municipal or state leaders.
Sen. Sanders voted against immigration reform years ago, he said, because of a poisonous provision that would have meant “semi-slavery” for the undocumented. Ms. Clinton, when asked about, for instance, her support, then nonsupport, of the Trans Pacific Pact, she said: “I have been consistent. … I do absorb new information. The trade deal is new.”
At their most heated, they talked over each other, they talked over the CNN questioners — and Mr. Webb griped more than once that he wasn’t getting his share of airtime. They expounded on issues near and dear to their Democratic supporters: Climate change; race relations; immigration reform; LGBT rights; criminal justice — and injustice. More spending on education, healthcare and housing. But it remains to be seen whether any of them moved the needle on their poll numbers.
Alas, no Carly Fiorina moment. And even though they sniped at each other, there was nothing explosive like the verbal punches thrown between, say Rand Paul and Chris Christie — or Mr. Trump and just about anyone — during the GOP debates. In fact, it was all refreshingly adult.
As expected, Ms. Clinton’s opponents threw Benghazi, State Department emails and her Wall Street connections at her. She remained poised and polished, deflecting barbs, sometimes persuasively, sometimes not.
Ms. Clinton was at her most passionate, her most resolute, in making the case for paid leave for new parents, striking out at the Republican Party for trying to take down Planned Parenthood while ignoring the needs of new moms and dads and their infants.
In fact, it was the former secretary of State who most often reminded the others, and the audience, that they were there to keep a Republican out of the White House and, by extension, that she was the one to do it.