I did end up watching and live-tweeting the first Democratic debate last night. If you want to read my tweets, I've Storified them here. The Washington Post has a full transcript of the debate available here.
The biggest story of the night was the juxtaposition between these competent, thoughtful, serious people and the jokefucks of the Republican Party during their first two debates. It was like night and day. If I knew nothing about US politics, and watched both parties' debates, I would honestly have trouble believing that they were all running for the same position.
All of the GOP candidates should be shitting themselves thinking about debating any of the Democrats in the general election after last night. I mean, when even Jim Webb could wipe the floor with ya, your party is truly a garbage disaster of epic proportions.
Each of the Dem candidates has good and bad moments, some more good than others. It's tough to pick out just the single best and worst moments for each, but here's my subjective assessment of the highs and lows of the night:
High: Not audibly farting during the debate.
Low: Constantly complaining about not getting enough time. Over and over, he grumbled that the other candidates had been talking for "ten minutes." He probably wasted ten minutes of his own time complaining that everyone else was getting more time than he was. At one point, debate moderator Anderson Cooper reminded him that he agreed to the rules of the debate, which included giving time to respond to anyone who had been named by another candidate. The reason Webb wasn't getting more time is because no one was mentioning or directly addressing him, because none of them care. Like the rest of us.
Overall Performance: Poor. He was unremarkable except for his petulance, and he is totally out of step with the Democratic Party on a number of issues. He's definitely the worst Democratic candidate, but definitely the best Republican candidate!
High: Making a reasonably convincing case for why he's running as a Democrat: "I have not changed on the issues. I was a liberal Republican, then I was an independent, and now I'm a proud Democrat. But I have not changed on the issues. And I open my record to scrutiny. Whether it's on the environment, a woman's right to choose, gay marriage, fiscal responsibility, aversion to foreign entanglements, using the tools of government to help the less fortunate. ...The party left me. There's no doubt about that. There was no room for a liberal moderate Republican in that party."
Low: Trying to tie Hillary Clinton's email issue to her Iraq War vote to challenge her credibility and ethics. It didn't play well, even before Cooper asked Clinton if she wanted to respond, to which she simply said, "No." To applause from the crowd.
Overall Performance: Shrug.
High: None of East Coast Gavin Newsom's answers last night were memorably awesome to me. But his goal was to introduce himself to voters as a credible national candidate, and he achieved that. He looked like he belonged on the stage.
Low: His response to a viewer question about whether the candidates believe Black Lives Matter or all lives matter: "Anderson, the point that the Black Lives Matter movement is making is a very, very legitimate and serious point, and that is that as a nation we have undervalued the lives of black lives, people of color." The fact that a white man responded to that question by commenting on the legitimacy of the movement was bad. Real bad. The question wasn't about validation. It's not good at all that O'Malley's instinct was to make an unsolicited pronouncement of the movement's validity.
Overall Performance: Solid but uninspiring.
High: The moment about which everyone is talking is when Sanders got Clinton's back on the issue of her email: "Let me say something that may not be great politics—but I think the Secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. ...Middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens United. Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America." This elicited cheers and applause, as well as laughter and a hearty handshake from Clinton.
I will admit I have mixed feelings about this moment. Not because of what Sanders said; that's why I'm marking it as his high moment. But the reaction to it bothers me, because when Clinton said essentially the same thing moments before—"I intend to keep talking about the issues that matter to the American people. You know, I believe strongly that we need to be talking about what people talk to me about, like how are we going to make college affordable? How are we going to pay down student debt?"—she did not get the same reaction. It was a man coming to her defense, saying the same thing she'd said, who's making the big news.
And that doesn't sit well with me. That's not Sanders' fault, and I don't mean to undermine what was certainly the high point of his debate performance. I just didn't want to report this without acknowledging the problems with the way it's been received.
Low: Sanders' low moment, in every sense of the phrase, came after Clinton was asked whether Sanders was "tough enough on guns" and replied, "No, not at all," followed by a detailing of his shitty record on gun reform. It was pretty standard debate back-and-forth, but Sanders got really defensive. When given a chance to respond, Sanders, who had spent the debate up until that point yelling all of his answers with righteous anger, taking advantage of the privilege to be visibly angry that Hillary Clinton does not have, said: "As a senator from a rural state, what I can tell Secretary Clinton, that all the shouting in the world is not going to do what I would hope all of us want, and that is keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have those guns and end this horrible violence that we are seeing."
Clinton was not "shouting," just for the record. Sanders' framing essentially amounted to calling Clinton hysterical, which was deeply shitty. Not to mention un-self-aware. I really, really did not like that at all.
Overall Performance: Sanders started out loudly angry, and it was too much even for me, and I like loudly angry progressives! But he managed to get it under control as the night went on, and I think overall he did a great job of keeping income inequality front and center as a major issue. As always, however, his lack of an intersectional analysis was frustrating.
High: This one is a tie, because I simply can't decide which was the best of the two moments:
1. When her Iraq War vote came up again, and Lincoln Chafee used it to question her overall judgment, Clinton was given a chance to respond: "Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment." BOOM.
2. During a question about paid family leave, Clinton gave a great policy answer about the economics of it and then pivoted brilliantly: "It's always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, 'You can't have paid leave, you can't provide health care.' They don't mind having Big Government to interfere with a woman's right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They're fine with big government when it comes to that. I'm sick of it!" POW.
Low: On the question (a terrible question, I might add) of whether Edward Snowden is "a traitor or a hero," Clinton said: "He broke the laws of the United States. He could have been a whistleblower. He could have gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower. He could have raised all the issues that he has raised. And I think there would have been a positive response to that." Which is a pretty bullshit answer, frankly, considering the Obama administration's awful record with punishing whistleblowers.
Overall Performance: Winner.
Clinton showed why she has had the long career in politics she has and why she's the frontrunner. She consistently went after the Republicans, while the other candidates were going after her, and she was, as every post-debate commentator on the planet was apparently obliged to observe last night, prepared and polished without looking rehearsed. As we all know, Clinton has to hit a grand slam just to avoid being called a loser, and the fact that she's getting headlines like "Hillary Clinton towers over her debate rivals" from the Washington Post and "Clinton crushes it" from Politico and "Hillary Clinton's Democratic debate magic" from the New York Times are indicative of just how well she did.
Which isn't to say that anyone else did badly! (Except Jim Webb, of course, who is the worst.) And, most importantly, collectively the Democratic candidates just came across as the better party by a country mile. Many country miles. All the country miles.
Whatever issues I have with these candidates—and I have issues with all of them, to one extent or another—they don't make me want to jump off the fucking planet the way every damn one of the Republican contenders do.