The Democrats held their first presidential debate, and there were
a few unexpected results. What was expected, and did occur, was
that the relatively small liberal field of candidates was, compared
to the much larger conservative field in the other party, weak
and unimpressive. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley,
former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island
Senator and Governor Lincoln Chaffee were not anticipated to
stand out, and they excellently fulfilled this. Vermont Senator
Bernie Sanders was anticipated to be the “star” of the evening
against long-time frontrunner Hillary Clinton, but his debate
performance was, on its face, a disappointment. At the same time,
Mrs. Clinton, enduring a long slide in the polls and her political
fortunes, clearly demonstrated her poise and debating skill, and
was almost universally proclaimed the big winner of the debate,
by almost all political observers, including yours truly.
Not so fast.
A curious matter happened in the television audience. The polls
and focus groups results I have seen show that Mr. Sanders was the
biggest winner of the evening. As Donald Trump has so successfully
done so far in the other party, Mr. Sanders’ effort, seemingly uneven,
melodramatic and often impolitic to those in the political class,
myself included, did appeal apparently to the left-leaning grass
roots of the Democratic Party, now radicalized and unmoved by
epithets of “socialism” and “radical populism.”
A lot of establishment Democrats were initially buoyed by Mrs.
Clinton’s performance at the first debate, and pleased by Mr.
Sanders apparent botch of his opportunity. They might have to
re-evaluate this in coming weeks.
Commentators have seemed to agree that it is now less likely
for Vice President Joe Biden to enter the race. This might be, or
not be, true, but Mr. Biden and his campaign will be doing some
serious polling after the debate, and I suspect they will find that
Mr. Sanders is still very much a serious candidate, and that Mr.
Biden still has a major opportunity.
Nine million less viewers watched this TV debate than watched
each of the Republican debates. It is true that more persons
watched the debate on social media than they did for the GOP
debates, but if Mr. Biden does not run for president, it is almost
certain that there will be a dramatic fall-off of voter interest in
future Democratic debates. That prospect is not likely for the
future GOP debates.
Mr. O’Malley and Mr. Chaffee had little notable to say, and their
presentations were forgettable. Mr. Webb did have some good
things to say, and some worthy perspectives, but presented them
weakly. None of these men are now serious candidates.
Mr. Sanders, self-proclaiming it was impolitic for him to do so,
gave Mrs. Clinton a pass on her e-mail controversy. This was
instantly judged to be a colossal mistake. But perhaps it was
more cunning than it appeared. First of all, the e-mail controversy
will not now magically go away. Republican presidential
candidate Chris Christie has already declared he will press the
issue further. Almost certainly, so will any other serious GOP
candidate. Second, should further revelations of Mrs. Clinton’s
e-mail errors deepen the legal and/or ethical case against her,
Mr. Sanders could easily change his view, citing that he had gone
out of his way to give her the benefit of the doubt. If Mr. Biden
does not run, and only Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton are the
remaining serious candidates, it could lead, as I have pointed out
in a previous column, to Mr. Sanders inevitable nomination.
In that scenario, all Mrs. Clinton’s poise and debating skill won’t
save her campaign.
If Mr. Sanders campaign now suddenly falls away, then what I
have just said won’t be true. But whatever lack of charm, poise
and debating skill he showed in the Nevada, he did not fail at all
in proclaiming his radical and redistributionist message.
Apparently, this was what so many in the Democratic grass roots
wanted to hear, and want to talk about.
As the Republican establishment has previously learned, the voters
are in an unpredictable mood this cycle.
Copyright (c) 2015 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.