First Democrat Debate: Where Each Candidate Excelled and Faltered

Democrats have five more chances to take down Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton take part in a presidential debate. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

I don’t blame you for not watching the first Democratic presidential primary debate. A bunch of old white people saying essentially the same thing for two hours? Who wants to watch that?

But I sat through it, and I’ll admit it was slightly less painful than watching the GOP debate (since it was much, much shorter since it didn’t have an earlier undercard debate) and here’s where I believe each candidate excelled and floundered.

HILLARY CLINTON

Where she floundered: We get it, you’re a woman. You don’t need to remind us of that fact every five minutes. When asked how she would not be a third-term Obama, Ms. Clinton said she thought the difference was “pretty obvious.” When asked why Americans would vote for a political “insider” like her, Ms. Clinton being the first woman president made her an “outsider.”

Despite the fact that she’s a woman, Ms. Clinton is losing support among Democratic women. Because maybe being a woman isn’t the only thing women care about in a president.

Where she excelled: She had ready responses for all attacks on her record. The responses were full of half-truths or complete fabrications, like on her claims that she has been true to her progressive roots even while constantly flip-flopping on issues, but at least she had responses ready.

She also didn’t need to excel during the debate. She just needed to avoid a major shellacking, and she did so.

BERNIE SANDERS

Where he floundered: He. Is. A. Socialist. While many of his rants against the 1 percent and big banks get applause lines in a Democratic primary, there’s just no chance the American people ever vote a devout socialist into the White House.

Where he excelled: His discussion of African-American and Hispanic youth unemployment, compared to the incarceration rate in this country, is something that can really resonate with some major voting blocs that the next Democrat will need to secure not only the primary, but also the presidency. His remarks about over-criminalization can resonate not just with Democrats, but also with Republicans, who have also been working on criminal justice reform.

He also brought a lot of attention to himself, which is what he needed to do in this debate. Even though he is polling close to Ms. Clinton, he has much lower name recognition than the former secretary of state. Google searches from the debate show that people were most interested in learning more about the Vermont senator, which should give him a post-debate boost in the polls.

MARTIN O’MALLEY

Where he floundered: He doesn’t have a lot of personality. Sure, he rolls up his sleeves and can play guitar, but when he speaks, there’s little passion. He wasn’t interesting, compared to Mr. Sanders or Ms. Clinton.

Where he excelled: He was great at using personal stories to illustrate his points. He told the story of a family who was firebombed after calling the police about a drug dealer. He also told the story of the family of an Aurora shooting victim who tried to sue the person who sole the ammunition to the gunman James Holmes, but had their suit thrown out of court. Regardless of the specifics of each of those cases, no one else brought personal stories like Mr. O’Malley.

JIM WEBB

Where he floundered: If a Republican said what Mr. Webb said about affirmative action, he would be branded a racist. Mr. Webb talked about how affirmative action laws exclude poor, struggling white people such as those in the Appalachian mountains. While that might be true, suggesting that affirmative action might be flawed is a definite “no-no” in the Democratic party.

Where he excelled: I’m not sure he did excel. He was boring and forgettable, and many of his answers—including his mention of the hypocrisy of gun control advocates surrounding themselves with armed guards—sounded more like something a Republican would say. How standing to the right of everyone else on stage is going to help him in a Democratic primary, I have no idea.

LINCOLN CHAFEE

Where he floundered: Mr. Chafee had the most painful answer of the entire night. One could almost pinpoint the collapse of his campaign, the answer was so bad. When asked by Mr. Cooper why he voted to repeal Glass-Steagall, a bill that limited banking activities, Mr. Chafee listed a number of excuses that amounted to nothing more than “I wasn’t paying attention.”

“The Glass-Steagall was my very first vote, I’d just arrived, my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office, it was my very first vote,” Mr. Chafee said. He went on to mention his dad’s death, and it being his first day on the job two more times.

Newsflash: “It was my first day” is never an acceptable answer when running for president.

Where he excelled: Excelled isn’t the word I would use for anything that had to do with Mr. Chafee’s performance. But his dig at Ms. Clinton over her “poor judgment” regarding her vote for the Iraq war was pretty good. Mr. Chafee hammered Ms. Clinton over this vote.

“[I]f you’re looking ahead, and you’re looking at someone who made that poor decision in 2002 to go into Iraq when there was no real evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—I know because I did my homework, and, so, that’s an indication of how someone will perform in the future,” Mr. Chafee said. “And that’s what’s important.”

If you’re looking for a clear winner of the night, it was Anderson Cooper. Mr. Cooper went into the debate looking like he was going to be characteristically soft against the Democratic contenders. He’s a former guest of the Clinton Global Initiative, and he said prior to the debate that he was “uncomfortable” with pitting the Democratic candidates against each other.

And yet, he excelled. He called out Ms. Clinton for her flip-flops, he asked Mr. Sanders how a socialist could get elected president, he hammered Mr. Chafee about switching parties. He was tough on everyone and pinpointed each candidate’s weakness and forced them to answer for it.

First Democrat Debate: Where Each Candidate Excelled and Faltered