At First Debate Democrats Clash (Gently) Over Who Can Be The Most Pragmatic Progressive

At First Debate Democrats Clash (Gently) Over Who Can Be The Most Pragmatic Progressive

Yes, the first Democratic debate was “boring.” And that’s not a bad thing.

When nobody on stage rejects utterly the basic tenets of civil political discourse in favor of lewd potshots, when nobody on stage thinks the country should be a Christian theocracy, and when nobody on stage thinks shutting down the government is actually a credible option… things are likely to turn boring.

Absent were the frenzied swipes at liberals, immigrants, and science, as well as the carnivalesque antics that have become familiar hallmarks of the GOP debates. Even when the Democratic candidates disagreed, their first debate was largely an appeal to pragmatism, conciliation, and — for the most part — unapologetically progressive principles.

Martin O’Malley perhaps said it best when he reminded viewers that despite any internal disagreement among the candidates onstage, the real opposition was with the dozen-plus Republicans angling for their party’s nomination. “On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women,” he said at the debate’s closing. “You didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants. You didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.”

Anyone who tuned in hoping to see a reality-show smackdown was likely disappointed, as the five candidates spent more time concurring, congratulating, backing each other up, and thanking each other than in any previous debate this cycle.

What little drama there was derived from candidates sparring with the moderators and each other on exactly when and how and whether they had shifted their views on certain issues. The frontrunner Hillary Clinton, in particular, was taken to task for the perception that has altered her political stances based on what is most expedient.

Everyone on stage has changed a position or two, she said. She had “absorbed new information,” which was reflected in her changing opinions, but maintained that she had been “very consistent” and rooted in the same values throughout her career. (Exactly what “new information,” specifically, she had learned to change her stance on social issues, such as marriage equality, she did not say.)

Mostly, the debate was a suite of agreement on a broad range of topics, including income inequality, regulation of the finance industry, criminal justice reform, climate change, gun control, China, and the Middle East. The candidates took turns nitpicking each other’s records and their precise shifts and disagreements on points of policy, and moderator Anderson Cooper was often mindful to demand straight answers and curb candidates’ grandstanding arias.

The five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination — former Secretary of State Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont, former Maryland governor O’Malley, former U.S. senator Jim Webb from Virginia, and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee — met for their first primary debate Tuesday night at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort. The debate, which aired on CNN, was moderated by Cooper, with assists from Dana Bash, Don Lemon, and Juan Carlos Lopez.

Compared to the congested, chaotic Republican field, the five-person race is positively minute, and there’s no way around it: The race is really between Sanders and Clinton, with the other three men each polling at less than 1 percent going into the debate.

O’Malley, who has seen his potential as an underdog candidate curdle in the months since he announced his campaign, tried to harness both the populism of Sanders and the pragmatism of Clinton. For the former governor and former Baltimore mayor, it was a do or die moment, and he had clearly decided it was better to do.

O’Malley took aim early and loudly at Sanders for his record on guns, accusing the independent senator from Vermont of distorting the issue by characterizing clashes over gun control as falling along an urban/rural fault line.

Clinton also accused Sanders of being too lax on gun control, mentioning that he had voted five times against the Brady Bill, and accusing him of wanting to grant immunity to the gun industry — the only industry in America, she said, which is not held accountable. (Sanders took care to mention that he had a D-minus rating from the NRA.)

Sanders responded that the job of the president would be to bring people together around common sense gun legislation and that all the shouting in the world would not effect change — certainly not in a divided Congress, in which, he noted, O’Malley had never held office.

Reciting his now-familiar points — paid family leave and maternity leave, free in-state college tuition, sweeping overhaul of banking regulation and campaign finance, raging against a “rigged economy” and the oligarchy of the one-percent — Sanders was passionate, but not aggressive with the other candidates.

He even came to Clinton’s aid by vociferously denouncing the political agenda of congressional investigations into the 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, which Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently suggested on Fox News had been drummed up specifically to hurt her poll numbers.

He conceded that is may not have been “great politics” to jump to her defense, but the country was “sick and tired” of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails,” and the media and politicians should turn to more pressing concerns — like economic reform.

When taking an online video question — “Do Black lives matter or do all lives matter?” — a point on which Sanders has previously fumbled, he was absolutely unequivocal: “Black lives matter,” he said.

“And the reason,” he continued, “those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car, and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot. We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system.”

But when Clinton was challenged on her 2003 vote to go to war in Iraq  — which she has admitted was a mistake — Sanders reminded voters that he had been in possession of all the same information that Clinton had, and he had voted against the war and made prescient predictions about the destabilization that would occur in the region following a U.S.-led invasion.

Lincoln Chafee, the former Rhode Island governor and U.S. Senator, was challenged on his shift from Republican to independent to Democratic candidate. He described himself as a “block of granite,” who had not changed his position on the issues.

“The party left me,” he said. There was no room, he said, for a “liberal moderate Republican.”

But Chafee resembled nothing so sedimentary during the debate, coming across as flustered, diffident, and out of his depth. He more than once mentioned as a main qualification that he had incurred no scandals — a fairly obvious jab at the Clintons.

(When asked if she wanted to respond to Chafee’s remarks at one point, Clinton said simply: “No.”)

Chafee told Cooper that he was “being a little rough” when questioning the former U.S. Senator’s voting record. Asked specifically about his 1999 vote to repeal Glass-Steagall Act, a piece of landmark banking regulation from the Great Depression, Chafee cited a litany of excuses for his decision: “It was my first vote,” he said. “I had just arrived. My dad had died in office.”  

The notion of being left behind by one’s party is something with which Jim Webb might have sympathized. Questioned on his relatively conservative stances on issues like coal energy and Affirmative Action, Webb stated: “I am where the Democratic policy has traditionally been.”

Webb cited his military service in Vietnam and the fact that he came from a family of marines, saying that he was “very comfortable that I am the most qualified to be commander-in-chief.”

For their penultimate remarks, candidates were asked which of their detractors and opponents they were most proud to have as an enemy. Webb’s response: “Probably the enemy soldier that threw a grenade at me — but he’s not around to talk now.”

Ultimately it was Clinton’s show. The candidate whose tenuous status as frontrunner hinges on her success convincing Democratic voters — who may not be charmed or convinced that she fully represents their values — that she possesses both the progressive bona fides and the best chance of any Democrat to beat the GOP nominee in the general election.

“I’m not taking a backseat to anyone on values, principles, and the results that I get,” she said when challenged on her fluctuating political positions.

“I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done. And I know how to find common ground. And I know how to stand my ground.”

Photo: Democratic U.S. presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee pose before the start of the first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada October 13, 2015. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Videos: CNN/AFP TV via Tribune Content Agency

This post has been updated.

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