The first Democratic presidential debate didn’t feature Joe Biden, Donald Trump, or even much disagreement among the candidates on stage in Nevada. But during the course of the two-hour debate — the first Democratic presidential debate in 7½ years — several truths became evident about the party and its future in this presidential race.
1 Democrats are over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail problems. For much of the last year, Clinton has been on the defensive with this issue, which stems from her use of a personal e-mail account while she was secretary of state. Her poll numbers slipped. Her campaign didn’t seem to know how to get out of it — and it’s clear now that Clinton might have needed some help.
The first piece of good news for Clinton came at the end of last month, when House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, implied that US congressional investigations into Benghazi, Libya, (which eventually led to Clinton’s e-mail disclosure) were political and were intended to damage her standing in the polls.
But at the debate, Senator Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s chief rival for the nomination, delivered the phrase that dominated social media all night: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails!” And with the subsequent cheers throughout the debate auditorium, Democrats told Clinton they had her back. It’s highly unlikely that Clinton’s e-mail issues will derail her from getting the nomination.
2 Experience can be a good thing in a primary, as Clinton showed on stage with her debate performance. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush might want to study her performance before Republicans assemble again at the end of this month in Colorado. With businessman Donald Trump maintaining his lead in Republican primary polls, the Democratic debate was a stark reminder that it was Bush who was supposed to be center stage and commanding the debate as Clinton did on Tuesday evening.
For example, Clinton’s comfort at the podium showed when the candidates discussed gun control. After Sanders spoke about what has become a thorny issue for him, Clinton immediately interjected her response. Her prepared lines played right to the Democratic base — and they prevented former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley from having hisown moment against Sanders on the issue.
Compare this moment to the GOP debates: Trump gets away dismissing Bush as “low energy” while they’re on stage together. Republicans might view Bush as the Clinton candidate in their party: the one with the name, the money, the political organization, and the sense of inevitability. But Bush’s and Clinton's debate performances could not be more different. Following the debate, Clinton proved herself to be in a different league on stage compared to Bush.
3 The desire for Biden to run for president can only diminish now. To be sure, Biden remains liked among Democrats and, at the moment, is a sympathetic figure. But politically, it is unclear where Biden fits into the primary picture after this debate. Logically, the only way Biden wins the Democratic nomination is if Clinton stumbles. On Tuesday, Clinton showed no signs of faltering.
4 Presidential debates have become just as much about entertainment as democracy. This was the case with the GOP debate, which shattered ratings records in part thanks to a reality television star, Trump, taking center stage. But on Tuesday, CNN pulled off the most Hollywood-like debate production ever.
There was the flashy debate introduction, plus pre-game and post-game features that resembled the commentary surrounding the Oscars or the Super Bowl. In a new twist, Sheryl Crow sang the national anthem. Candidates huddled with advisers in white trailers like a movie set. There was even a red carpet.
And of course, all of this glitz took place at the Wynn Las Vegas casino on the Strip.
5Debate preparation matters for any candidate. It was clear that Clinton, arguably the most experienced debater on the stage, did her debate prep homework. Other candidates on the stage either did not or failed to execute. For Clinton, it made the difference.
Sanders struggled to explain his position on gun control — a topic he must have known would come up in a Democratic primary debate. O’Malley promised an intense performance and ended up not landing a single big punch. And the others — former US senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee — either couldn’t explain why they were Democrats or, in one baffling case, why they voted as they did.