A Tale of Two Debates

South Carolina #DemDebate Reax

Hillary Clinton smiles as Martin O’Malley candidly discusses his chances to be the nominee.

What Happened?

NBC News hosted two Democratic debates on Sunday night. They happened in the same time, in the same place, and with the same people. One of the debates was an actual event watched by Democratic primary voters. The other debate was a virtual event perceived only by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders (aka Berners), Hillary Haters, and media folk who want more spectacle. I did not watch the debate(s) because I was spending quality time cuddling with my son, but after reading about it all I have been most impressed by NBC News’ ability to host two debates at the same time. Bravo, NBC News!

The actual debate lasted for a couple of hours and covered foreign policy, healthcare, criminal justice, banking regulations, and many other things. The virtual debate for Berners never really begins or ends and as far as I can tell the focus of that debate is the upcoming shift of all powers from the legislative branch to the executive branch, which is apparently going to happen when Bernie Sanders is elected President.

The crew at FiveThirtyEight liveblogged the debate, with Harry Enten providing the summary and the grades given to the candidates’ performances:

Sunday night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina was certainly a vigorous one between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, but was there a clear winner? It didn’t seem so to me or the FiveThirtyEight staff. As we do with every debate, our live blog team graded the candidates’ performances on an A to F scale, based on how well each improved (or hurt) their chances of winning the nomination. The result: Clinton and Sanders both averaged a B+, while O’Malley was well back with a C.

Who said what?

Jacob Brogan at Slate posted a rundown of the big quotes from the night, here is O’Malley, hitting the only issue he can distinguish himself on:

O’Malley on his opponents’ gun control records:

I’ve listened to secretary Clinton and senator Sanders go back and forth on which has the most inconsistent record on gun safety legislation, and I would have to agree with both of them. They’ve both been inconsistent when it comes to this issue.

Here is Senator Clinton on the attempted genocide in Flint, Michigan:

Clinton on Flint, MI

We’ve had a city in the united States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African American, has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stone walled. I’ll tell you what, if the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.

And from the virtual debate for Berners, here is Senator Sanders on the stakes of the election and/or a magical spell that has been cast on his campaign (I can’t be sure without seeing the question):

Sanders on the stakes:

This campaign is about a political revolution to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.

If you want more on specific exchanges, here are some links:

Zack Beauchamp @ Vox on Sanders calling Jordan’s dictator a “hero”

Jackie Kucinich @ The Daily Beast covers the increased hostilities in the debate and primary

Max Fisher @ Vox attempts to explain why (some folks think) Clinton and Sanders give poor answers to questions about ISIS

Tim Mak goes a little deeper into the problems with Senator Sanders’ ISIS strategy, calling it a “disaster”

Caitlin McNeal @ TPM has the rundown on something I am sorry I missed, which is a moderator asking Senator Sanders why he keeps mentioning Bill Clinton’s scandals while saying he doesn’t want to talk about it. Sanders, of course, mentioned the scandals and criticized Bill Clinton again while also saying he doesn’t want to talk about it.

Also @ TPM, Tierney Sneed has the scoop on the exchange over healthcare

And of course the NYTimes has a nice, milquetoast summary of the whole evening.

But enough of that, we want to know who won and who lost, because that is how we talk about things.

At the actual debate, everybody won.

Among those who watched the actual debate, it seems everybody won. O’Malley won simply by being invited onto the stage again, while Clinton and Sanders are generally thought to have both helped themselves in the debate. Josh Marshall at TPM thinks this is basically a win for the front-runner (Clinton):

As I mentioned in my wrap up of the Republican debate, debates lead to elections and elections are only zero-sum exercises. So everybody can’t win. If everyone does great it’s a wash and meaningless – a win for the frontrunner. I thought Hillary Clinton did very well in this debate. She was quick on her feet, deeply knowledgable. She shows herself as unflappable. Several times I heard her answering questions in ways that were subtle, knowledgable and showed a tendency not to go for the political answer but to highlight complexities in highly politicized questions which are often ignored. I was impressed.

One thing Clinton said that made me wish I had seen the debate:

“One out of three African-American men may well end up going to prison. That’s the statistic. I want people here to think what we would be doing if it was one out of three white men. And very often the black men are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated for offenses that do not lead to the same results for white men. So we have a very serious problem that we can no longer ignore.”

Fucking A! People who say racist and/or stupid shit have long had the joy of listening to their words come out of candidates’ mouths, but for me this is one of the first times it has happened with any candidate not named Obama. Such a treat. German Lopez wrote a piece at Vox noting the age of the statistic makes it inaccurate, but the point stands:

The statistic is outdated, based on a 2003 report on incarceration, as Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post explained. The actual rate of incarceration is likely much lower than Clinton suggested.

But the general point is right: There are enormous racial disparities in the US’s prison system: In 2014, black men were nearly six times as likely to go to prison than white men, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Check it out if you want to know more. Meanwhile, Isaac Chotiner at Slate saw the same debate as Marshall, but thinks Clinton won, not by default, but by being the best:

Clinton had several strong moments Sunday night. “Ninety people a day die from gun violence in this country,” she noted, before going on to attack Sanders’ record on the Second Amendment, methodically reciting a series of his congressional votes. For some reason Sanders still struggles when pressed on his gun rights votes; he called Clinton “disingenuous” and said that guns “should not be a political issue.” Sanders has run an impressive race and is challenging Clinton in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but Clinton’s ability to bring him to earth and seem like just another politician—his weird, Trump-like quoting of polls tonight didn’t help—is remarkable. (The moderators helped her tonight by making it appear as if Sanders had changed or updated a number of his positions.)

The Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick didn’t declare a winner or loser, but reveled in just how contentious the Democratic debate was, particularly the exchange on guns:

But when Sanders was pressed about why he had changed his position on gun manufacturer immunity, he stumbled.

“What I have said, is that gun manufacturer’s liability bill has some good provisions among other things, we’ve prohibited ammunition that would’ve killed cops who had protection on,” Sanders began his response.

“So what I said is I would re-look at it. We are going to re- look at it and I will support stronger provisions,” Sanders said.

Clinton, apparently sensing an opening, continued her onslaught.

“Yes look, I have made it clear based on Senator Sanders’ own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times,” Clinton said. “He voted against the Brady Bill five times. He voted for what we call, the Charleston Loophole. He voted for immunity from gunmakers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years.”

Her list wasn’t done.

“He voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak, guns go into National Parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives. Let’s not forget what this is about, 90 people a day die from gun violence in our country. That’s 33,000 people a year.”

Another widely-noted aspect of the debate, in addition to the exchange on guns, was the general theme of Clinton asserting herself as the continuation of President Obama’s legacy. Noah Rothman at Commentary says that Clinton’s tactic of fully embracing President Obama is a good move in South Carolina that will also make her general election strategy simpler:

“Let’s make it work.” There might be no better elucidation of the struggles and strengths of Hillary Clinton’s campaign – in fact, of any candidate running to succeed a two-term president from their party in the White House. If there was one consistent attack on Sanders that Clinton repeatedly returned to, it was in condemning his criticisms of President Barack Obama. Clinton wrapped her arms around the president. Amid a debate in South Carolina, that is surely a tactical approach that may yield results for Clinton, who is relying on a strong showing among the state’s African-American voters. It is also an acknowledgment of an immutable reality; in both the primary and in the general, 2016 will be a referendum on Barack Obama’s presidency. Clinton can only run so far from Obama’s record, and she will have to perform far fewer logical contortions in order to appeal to frustrated voters across the ideological spectrum if she embraces his record early and often.

It’s a good, smart post by Rothman that sees the debate as a synopsis of the Democratic primary:

This is Clinton’s challenge. Despite the lack of a commensurate level of media coverage, the Democratic base is as anxious and frustrated with Washington as is the average Republican primary voter. But the republic is a system designed to restrain the will of the populist politician. The former secretary of state must communicate those limits to her party’s restless voters, whether they want to hear it or not.

So if the actual event was a win for all, with Clinton maybe benefitting most from that, what happened at the virtual debate?

At the virtual debate, Bernie DOMINATED! Hillary FAILED!

It is not always easy to tell if the folks watching the virtual debate are Sanders boosters, Hillary haters, or both. One way or the other, they end up with mostly the same conclusions: Bernie is awesome, Hillary sucks. Finishing up our Vox links, here is Dylan Matthews on Sanders as a debate winner:

Bernie is now posting his best poll numbers of the campaign to date, as he excitedly pointed out in a moment that echoed Donald Trump’s matter-of-fact citation of polling at Thursday’s Republican debate. He’s only four points behind in Iowa and gaining, solidly ahead in New Hampshire, and has momentum nationally too. There’s a very real possibility that he wins the first two primary contests and leaves Clinton scrambling to recover in South Carolina.

Notice how the intro about Bernie’s debate win is largely based on questionable predictions about future events, not the debate. Here is Matthews on Clinton as a debate loser:

At the risk of sounding tautological, Clinton lost by not winning. The trends aren’t in her favor at the moment. Sanders is gaining in Iowa and is starting to be treated like a serious candidate by the press. Her attempts to attack Sanders’s support for single-payer health care this week were widely perceived as backfiring, especially among liberal primary voters who might be tempted to support Clinton out of practicality. She needed to a debate in which she could show that Sanders was out of his depth, not someone you could plausibly see actually functioning as president. She didn’t do that this time around.

Notice how most of that is about an interpretation of events before the debate, not the debate. Matthews is not the only one watching the virtual debate, of course. Here is Chris Cilliza at the Washington Post describing Sanders as a winner:

Yes, Sanders has one volume: shouting. And, yes, he got tripped up a few times during the debate on his voting record — especially on guns. But throughout the debate’s first hour — the hour when most people, especially on the East Coast and in the Midwest, were watching — he was the prime mover in virtually every discussion from Wall Street reform to health care to climate change. He was on offense, accusing rival Hillary Clinton of half-measures and political caution at a moment when boldness is required.

That’s right: the winner is the guy who talked the most and the loudest. By this metric, Sanders should be running in the GOP primary. Here Cilliza lays out his case for Clinton as a loser:

So, why is she in the loser column? Because she did nothing in the debate to slow the momentum that Sanders is building in Iowa and New Hampshire. Aside from guns, where Clinton scored a clean win against Sanders, she was unable to effectively cast him as a pie-in-the-sky idealist and herself as the only person who could truly fight for — and win on — Democratic priorities.

He makes his case a bit more, then concludes:

The Clinton-as-cautious-pragmatist vs. Sanders-as-idealist-fighter is not a good dynamic for the former secretary of state.

Yes, because it isn’t doing anything for her other than keeping her as the nearly-prohibitive front-runner for the nomination.

Using metrics from Google, Twitter, and Yik Yak, The Daily Dot makes the case that Berners love that online activity = their guy is the real winner:

Fresh off a week of favorable polls that had the independent Vermont senator closing in—or surpassing—leading challenger Hillary Clinton in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders dominated Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate by all available real-time metrics. 

Actual LOL, it is just so great – “dominated… …by all available real-time metrics” – which basically means people who support Sanders post more online, and also people still don’t know who he is and so are searching for information about him. What goes unmentioned is that if we go by “all available real-time metrics” for, say, GOP primary debates in 2008 and 2012 then we would assume that Ron Paul was the eventual GOP nominee both times. But whatever, facts sucks, so the post concludes:

Will this debate performance be enough to thrust Sanders firmly into the frontrunner position?

Nope. It won’t even put him within striking distance of being loosely considered the frontrunner, much less firmly so. It is probably also worth asking Berners if, in 2016, the old man on stage talking the most and the loudest, over the woman who is the frontrunner, is something that should be celebrated.

Those posts all seemed to be from the Berners who watched the virtual debate, because the Hillary Haters who watched it focused more on Hillary’s “problems” than on Sanders’ “domination.” Here is Brendan Bordelon at NRO, describing the despair of the Clinton campaign in the face of the Sanders juggernaut that is dominating… …one state:

Privately, however, close Clinton advisers are kicking themselves for their complacency in the face of Sanders’s insurgent campaign. Though she took soft swipes at Sanders’s gun-control stance over several Democratic debates last year, for the most part Clinton and her campaign used a soft touch against her rival until last week. As the New York Times reported Saturday, nearly a dozen of Clinton’s friends, outside allies, and donors now believe they underestimated Sanders, allowing his progressive, anti-establishment message to develop into a juggernaut.

Perspective: Hillary Clinton has hundreds of party endorsements, friends, outside allies, and donors. Probably thousands. The NYTimes found “nearly a dozen” who believe they underestimated Sanders. It is an impressive feat of reporting, but I don’t think it means what Bordelon thinks it means.

What does it all mean?

I agree with folks who say no clear winner = good news for Hillary Clinton. Not great news, just good news. I also think that Sunday – being the debate and when Sanders finally released his healthcare plan – was the beginning of the end of the Bernie Sanders candidacy, but that is a topic for another post. Suffice it to say I think that Senator Sanders is very lucky that the next Democratic debate is not until after the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

Got a question or comment? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 



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