Last night I wrote down my snap reactions to the fourth Republican debate. Today, rather than looking backwards again, I'm going to instead look forward (both literally and figuratively) to the upcoming Democratic debate which will be held this Saturday night.
The Democratic field has certainly tightened, in contrast to the free-for-all happening on the Republican side. Since the race began, the Republican field has shrunk from 17 announced candidates down to only 15. Their debates have needed two separate sessions each, just to fit everyone on the stage. Their main debate has featured anywhere from eight to 11 candidates, with the remainder getting a non-prime-time "kids' table" debate. During the same time period, the Democratic field has shrunk from six candidates down to three.
Now, you can argue this is a good thing or a bad thing, which is certainly a debatable point (pun intended). How large a field is the optimum for any party's primary race is an interesting political science question, but this year it certainly appears the Democrats have hit the low end of the scale while the Republicans still are at all-time highs. In fact, the biggest shakeup in the Democratic field happened when one man decided not to run, since all the polls had been including Joe Biden's name for months. Biden turning down a bid, coupled with the exits of Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb and Lawrence Lessig, have left us with only three candidates -- and only two who realistically look viable. Martin O'Malley will indeed be on the stage this Saturday night, but all eyes will really be on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If the Democrats were using the same rules as the Republican hosts, Clinton and Sanders would debate each other and O'Malley would debate himself, a few hours earlier. Since that's pretty ridiculous to even suggest, O'Malley will likely be invited to all the debates right up until he ends his run, no matter how dismal his poll numbers remain.
There has been some controversy over the debate calendar on the Democratic side, of course. Many have pointed out the debate schedule seemed to be set by Debbie Wasserman Schultz to benefit Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming the nominee. The tight schedule (only six debates, total) and the timing (holding them on Saturday nights, for instance) have been criticized, but to no avail. This has even led to "non-debate debates" being scheduled (like the one hosted by Rachel Maddow, last week), where the candidates aren't actually on stage at the same time as each other (call them "candidate forums" instead, we are told).
Controversy aside, the upcoming Democratic debate will be notable because it will be the first one held this year on broadcast television. People who want to watch the debate will be able to do so without a cable or satellite subscription, and without having to livestream it on their computers. It may not draw a bigger audience than, say, the first two Republican debates (with over 20 million viewers each), but it may draw a different audience, being on CBS.
All three candidates will have clear goals in the debate. The polling is settling down from the impact of Joe Biden not running, and so far it looks like Hillary Clinton did a better job than Bernie Sanders of picking up Biden's supporters. Clinton was also helped by her strong performance at the Benghazi hearings, it should be added, which happened at roughly the same time. Since the last time they debated, Clinton picked up over 11 percent support to climb comfortably back above 50 percent of the Democratic voting base, while Sanders picked up over seven points to reach the mid-30s in the polls. O'Malley rose above one percent in his polling average, but has yet to hit two percent.
Martin O'Malley's problem is that he's never given a clear definition of why he's running. He says he's a different kind of Democrat than either Bernie or Hillary, but his positions are pretty close to both of theirs on a multitude of issues. The differences are mainly ones of degree, not ideology. O'Malley is trying to stake out some sort of position between Hillary and Bernie, but not to any noticeable success yet.
Of course, O'Malley has the least to lose of the three. Which means he could play the attack dog against both Sanders and Clinton. However, many people assume O'Malley is essentially running to be Hillary's veep choice, so perhaps he'll hold back a bit on taking on Clinton. He doesn't want to say anything completely unforgivable, to put this another way.
In the first debate, Hillary Clinton was much stronger against Sanders than many had expected. She directly challenged him on a number of issues, instead of just playing it safe. Hillary was also forced -- just before the first Democratic debate -- into taking some concrete positions on several issues that Bernie had been using against her to good effect on the campaign trail (the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone XL pipeline, to name just two). Since then, Hillary has moved to the left on marijuana legal reform as well (although not as far as Sanders).
Last debate, however, both candidates were vying for the Biden vote. Now that disappointed Biden fans have sifted into one camp or the other -- and now that Hillary's back up above 50 percent again -- the race has truly been defined as a head-to-head contest, with one clear frontrunner and one scrappy underdog. In most such political matchups, the frontrunner would tend to lay back a bit and skate on already-high support, while the underdog would fiercely try to take the frontrunner down. This will certainly be the narrative from the media, as we get closer to debate night. The problem is, neither candidate may accept these traditional roles, at least not in the classic sense.
Hillary Clinton seems to be a natural debater. Whether this is true or not (how "authentic" this read may be, in other words), she certainly seemed in her element during both the last debate as well as during her 11 hours of questioning by the Benghazi committee. Up until this point in the campaign, Clinton was noticeably stiff and exuded an air of caution. She's definitely not a natural campaigner, unlike her husband. But in the first debate, she came alive in a way not previously seen this year. So it's doubtful that she'll play it safe this Saturday night, and she may indeed strongly go after Bernie once again. Especially since there will only be three people on the stage, making the contrasts between Clinton and Sanders much clearer.
Bernie Sanders is not a natural debater. He's best out on the stump, delivering stem-winding speeches that make the crowds roar. He is not practiced or polished in his answers, but he certainly is as authentic as ever. But no matter how much the media goads him, he will also likely not play the attack dog with Clinton. The media gloss over the distinction, but Bernie's right -- he has consistently attacked Clinton's positions on the issues without ever stooping to attacking her personally (or "attacking her personality" perhaps). They have clear differences of opinion on a number of things, which both Bernie and Hillary do a pretty good job of defining, when facing each other.
This may seem like splitting hairs, but it's a distinction worth making. Bernie may point out that he supports a $15 minimum wage while Clinton only has committed to $12 an hour. But he won't call her a secret conservative, or call her out of touch with reality or anything. Sanders, in the first debate, had to introduce himself to millions of people who had never heard him speak and hadn't looked at what he stood for. He won't have to do as much "reintroducing himself" this time around, which means he'll probably focus more on the specific differences between his platform and Clinton's.
A lot will depend on the moderators. John Dickerson is a pretty wonky guy, which does bode well. Anderson Cooper, in the earlier debate, seemed much more interested in heightening the drama on stage, at the expense of exploring the real policy differences between the candidates. Cooper was, contrary to the myth now circulating in the right-wing media echo chamber, actually pretty tough in his questions last time around, but they all had a rather snarky spin to them that (hopefully) won't be present Saturday night. Dickerson should be much better at asking intelligent and relevant follow-up questions, as well -- which are often the key to challenging airy talking points from stump speeches with hard, cold facts.
All of this means the next Democratic debate could be quite good. I'd like the voters get a chance to hear the differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on foreign policy, on how to deal with Wall Street, on domestic economic issues facing the middle class, on gun control, on law enforcement, on immigration, on criminal justice reform, on marijuana reform, on trade agreements, on how to deal with Congress and on executive power in general. Some of these differences are small, and some are quite large. The voters deserve to have these differences clearly defined by the two candidates, in detail.
Luckily for us all, the stars seem to be aligning for just such a substantive debate to take place. With only two viable candidates on stage (and with only one not-really-viable candidate), both Hillary and Bernie should have lots of time to explain their positions. They won't be competing with seven others, as we just saw in the Republican debate, so the competition for airtime won't be nearly as fierce. With a wonky moderator, hopefully the Democrats (also unlike the Republicans) will be challenged on facts and details, and the weakest parts of their respective platform ideas. Democratic candidates (for the most part, and certainly this year) don't whine and try to "work the refs" when challenged in this fashion, they just tend to get wonkier than the questioner.
The media has stopped treating Bernie Sanders like a joke, which will also help. Hillary Clinton won't have as many "scandal" questions, since she's largely put most of them behind her at this point. Martin O'Malley may get a little desperate at some point during the evening, but Clinton and Sanders will likely brush him off and concentrate on the differences between each other instead. Plus, the debate will be available to everyone, meaning a broader demographic audience may be tuning in.
So, yes, I will be looking forward to this Saturday's debate. The conditions seem perfect for a real political debate between two candidates who differ from each other on many key issues. Both viable candidates are now at the top of their game out on the campaign trail. With only three candidates on the stage, we'll have a good opportunity to hear what they have to say, in much greater detail than is possible with a crowded stage. We have a frontrunner already commanding majority support among Democratic voters, an underdog who isn't all that far behind (flipping 10 percent from Clinton to Sanders would put them even), and one outsider candidate with virtually no chance of being at the top of the Democratic ticket. No matter who wins the Democratic nomination, however, debates like this will be excellent practice for when he or she has to face the eventual Republican nominee -- who will be hamstrung, by the softball nature of what passes for debates among Republicans.
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