Oh yeah, that’s right: Democrats do have a primary after all.
For an entire summer bleeding into fall, it sure didn’t feel like it. Republicans sucked up all the air, thanks to bigoted sound bites from their candidates and the Democratic National Committee’s own flawed assumption that it just needed six debates to get the message out. In the meantime, average folks removed from the political chattering class were getting the impression that only Republicans were running for president.
But all near-fatal strategic decisions aside, there it was. We finally got a glimpse of every Democratic presidential-primary candidate onstage, including those you never knew existed. All … five of them. OK. So while it was much smaller than the GOP’s bar fight, one could argue that was refreshing. At least we didn’t have to suffer through two tiers of debates.
There certainly wasn’t any smoke clearing in the aftermath. And it wasn’t the kind of Doritos-and-dip night political junkies yearned for. Still, it gave The Root an opportunity to notice nine really important takeaways from Tuesday night’s Democratic rumble:
1. Who won? There was so little noise and rancor in this debate that you could get a clear, courtside view of all the winning shots. In the immediate debate post-mortem, it appears as if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders clinched it, his faithful social media audience giving him the digital juice he needs to carry on (and if passionate, uninspiring, doom-and-gloom fist pounding is your thing, then Bernie’s your man). Still, expert observers will say that Hillary Clinton looked really solid, fully embracing the debate moment. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley definitely looked strong enough to live another day, but not enough to dismiss jokes that he’s better suited as someone’s running mate.
2. Who lost? Would former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee be leaving Nevada alone that night? And was former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb still figuring out if he was running to take Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s place in the Republican primary? We don’t know yet. But what we do know is that both men were vaporized into nonexistence by terrible debate performances: Chafee looked like a SpongeBob SquarePants casting take, and Webb, sparring with moderator Anderson Cooper about time while stumbling through affirmative action and #BlackLivesMatter questions, might as well have worn a trucker’s cap and camouflage hunting gear to the stage.
3. There’s one woman, but it’s an all-white primary. It’s the weird irony of this election cycle after two full terms of the nation’s first black president: There were no black candidates onstage, no one “of color.” Republicans, strangely enough, own that narrative this year. One of the more interesting cultural optics of this season is that it’s the least diverse Democratic primary in quite some time.
4. Should we give up on black journalists as presidential-debate moderators? We’re good for giving the before-and-after analysis on panels. But even with Democratic primary debates, we’re not sitting at the main moderator table asking the tough questions. Black voters are the dominant bloc in the Democratic primary: You can’t win without them. No other demographic group, in fact, is as loyal to the Democratic Party as African Americans. In critical states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina, they are more than half the primary electorate. And yet CNN puts Don Lemon on kid-in-the-corner Facebook duty, fielding softball questions from social media users. That’ll definitely change by the time we get to Charleston, S.C., Jan. 17. But black moderators should be the norm for every debate.
5. Still, for what it’s worth, #BlackLivesMatter definitely got its shine moment. Black people were not at the moderator table. And they don’t have a candidate in this primary cycle, either. But their issues were rather pervasive during this debate, with candidates now forced to submit to Black Lives Matter litmus tests or end up like Jim Webb, stumbling into an abyss of electoral nothingness for saying “All lives matter” instead.
Candidates were flowing like experts on criminal-justice reform and inequality issues, while even topics like “institutional racism” got top mentions. But it’s still a balancing act: In case you missed it, there was that passing moment when Clinton didn’t exactly say the words “Black lives matter,” even as she shouted down racism and inequality. With a late-summer Rasmussen poll showing only 31 percent of black voters identifying with the BLM movement, candidates may be playing this a lot more cautiously than some expect—and others would like.
6. If you want to be entertained, line up for the Republican debate. If you want to get schooled on policy, then this Democratic debate is your vibe. Give them credit where some credit is due: The Democratic candidates were more focused on delivering policy talking points than delivering personal punches. Maybe that’s not what a ratings-starved CNN wanted, but it’s the first big-stage debate that focused on actual policy positions. Democrats were able to showcase where they stood on everything from climate change to Vladimir Putin’s attitude, a fresh departure from GOP-debate Lord of the Flies title bouts.
That may have caught a few heads nodding off between applause, but it helped Democrats start inching away from a primary overshadowed by one candidate’s email troubles. Still, interestingly enough, as much conversation as there was on college costs and student debt, not one question or comment about the nation’s much more critical K-12 education crisis.
7. Bernie Sanders can be really (and predictably) depressing. Sanders did deliver the most memorable and spontaneous lines of the night: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about those damn emails!” Classic. And “Wall Street regulates Congress.” Boom. But Sen. Bernie is also one of the most passionately depressing politicians running in politics today. Just when you thought presidential candidates were supposed to give voters a little motivational push to the polls, there’s the Bern keeping it so 100 about the dismal state of things that you want to ship your kids off to Canada.
8. Sanders and Clinton just gave their opposition some great attack ads. One thing most political strategists and professional campaign “opposition researchers” will look for during a debate are gaffes, slipups and those funniest, rhetorical, home-video moments that end up in finely produced election attack ads. Both Sanders and Clinton gave themselves and Republicans just that, both sinking into tactical debate-stage errors that could come back to haunt them. Sanders couldn’t stop throwing shade on America by telling us how awesome Northern European countries are or calling himself a “Democratic socialist.” And Clinton’s kickoff sentence admitting that she “represented Wall Street” is bound to get baked into a clever YouTube cut.
9. Joe who? This first debate went so well that, for now, Democrats don’t have to take out the “Vice President Joe Biden Emergency Term Election Cycle Insurance” plan. Clinton looked absolutely solid despite all the hashtagging and Googling hype over Sanders, and there were no major hiccups in this first debate. Even most of us pundits forgot about old Joe for the moment, pretty much resigned to the fact that Clinton performed well enough in the Roman-gladiator pit to keep her campaign from imploding over email-scandal mismanagement.
Does that mean Biden lost last night? Not necessarily. It just means he can relax now and resume the last year of his executive-branch duties—unless these emails contain fatal political viruses or there are signs showing Sanders miraculously within striking distance of a nomination. For now, a Biden entry is what it was before Tuesday night: pure speculation.
Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and a contributing editor at The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune, a frequent contributor to The Hill, the weekly Washington insider for WDAS-FM in Philadelphia and host of The Ellison Report, a weekly public-affairs magazine broadcast and podcast on WEAA 88.9 FM Baltimore. Follow him on Twitter.