Thoughts on the First Democratic Debate

Watched most of the first Democratic primary debate last night in spite of planning not to. I did miss an opening statement or two as I turned it on just in time to see Bernie’s. Sanders came out damn strong and I was glad to see it – and I should note before going much further that I’m incredibly partisan for Bernie Sanders and that will no doubt inform my comments in a particular way.

I found Sanders to be the only candidate on stage who expressed passion for anything other than his own record. Clinton continuously reinforced the idea that she had been chosen for this or that role and the things she accomplished in them. O’Malley painted an incredibly whitewashed, inaccurate view of his time in Baltimore. Chafee emphasized his lack of scandals.

Wait – I missed one. Jim Webb expressed passion about something other than his record as he talked about killing a man. Right.

Right now the pundits are saying that Hillary Clinton won last night. I am flummoxed. Clinton hit mostly right notes but in a disconnected, dispassionate way. She seemed for all the world like a technically proficient pianist playing a master work note for note and yet without any understanding of the work or its accompanying emotion. Her debate answers consisted of a paint-by-numbers exercise that included none of the artist’s zeal. The performance underscored for me the idea that Clinton believes she should have the nomination in hand by virtue of her presence. Her answers on Snowden (lock him up) and capitalism (hey, we can make it good! and small banks are worse than big banks) struck sour notes with me. Her revisionist portrayal of Russian cooperation with Medvedev as president entirely pretended as if Putin didn’t exist or have any power at the time and ignored multiple atrocities Russia committed during that period.

One of the most interesting questions of the night also constituted Clinton’s biggest failure to me. “Which enemy are you most proud of?” elicited a list from her, ticking off boxes one after the other, well-rehearsed: “Well, in addition to the NRA, the health insurance companies, the drug companies…the Iranians…. probably the Republicans.” Clinton’s answer is incredibly problematic on a few levels: first of all, there are a hell of a lot of perfectly nice Iranians (nearly eighty million) that she’s lumping in together, rather than specifying the Iranian regime. That’s not the message to be sent – especially to a population with a median age of less than thirty years old that knows, as Tariq Ali once said, only the reign of the ayatollahs. The second problem with Clinton’s answer is that it betrays a worldview of enmity and aggression (largely consistent with her portrayal across news articles as well as several books I’ve read) that doesn’t seem to be serving us well in leadership positions. I don’t want a Commander-In-Chief that approaches most situations in a way eerily similar to George W. Bush’s “you’re either with us or you’re against us” crap.

I found Sanders’ answers to be consistent with views he’s held for a long time and consistent with mine as well. His answer to the enemy question: Wall Street and Big Pharma, two topics close to my heart. His answer on the biggest national security threat had me cheering: climate change. Sanders unflinchingly, unhesitatingly called for the end to bulk communications collection by the NSA. His exchange with Clinton over capitalism highlighted some of the major differences between them: Clinton’s established record of working with and getting money from Wall Street, and Bernie’s absolutely passionate defense of democratic socialism. Again, Clinton came off technical while Sanders reminded me of a career civics teacher passionately trying to get students to buy-in, learn and involve themselves in the process.

I wish Sanders had taken a stronger line on Snowden rather than agreeing with the “he broke the law” silliness and mumbling about the effect mitigating his crime a little. Snowden deserves to come home without charges.

Last night felt like O’Malley lobbied hard for a VP spot he’ll never get and doesn’t deserve. He answered several questions by talking about how good he had been for Baltimore, something I’ve seen challenged in every camp possible so far. O’Malley couldn’t even bring himself to refer to a homicide as such, instead explicitly referring to “Freddie Gray’s tragic death” in just those words. His anti-NRA stance felt underwhelming, perhaps in the midst of the credibility hit he took in my head over Gray and Baltimore.

Chafee felt like a non-entity, another smiling face behind a podium without a hell of a lot of substance or passion.

And then there was Jim. Jim Webb’s performance I can only interpret in perhaps the context that the burger I ate a few hours prior maybe had moldy cheese with psychoactive properties and caused me to hallucinate each time he appeared. Jim Webb is the kind of guy Hunter Thompson was built for: an old ghost trying to gather enough substance to be a Jungian archetype while half his mind is still back in a war decades past. At various points I found Webb repeating the sad, false Republican trope about gun control advocates all having bodyguards; advocating immediate military force against China; and complaining multiple times, bitterly, about not being in the spotlight. He struck me as the kind of guy I’d never want to sit next to at a bar, never want to have a beer with, and never want in my party. Indeed, as David Corn pointed out, I identified most of Webb’s stances with Rand Paul.

And of course there was Webb’s answer to the “which enemy are you proudest of” question: an enemy soldier from his old war that lobbed a grenade at him. Webb implied that the man’s death followed. We’ve got a “presidential candidate” in a Democratic primary debate bragging over killing a man in Asia mere minutes after advocating war with China. Whatever kind of debate prep Jim Webb engaged in should’ve involved psychotherapy.

As is clear from my comments above, I think Sanders won. Clinton had a strong technical showing that never the less reinforced why I don’t believe she’s a preferable or viable candidate. O’Malley made things up, Chafee stood there, Webb should’ve been in the other debate instead.

Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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