The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What We Learned from the First Democratic Debate

Hillary Clinton is still the frontrunner. And Jim Webb killed a guy in 'Nam.
October 14, 2015, 4:00am

Photos via Flickr users Michael Vadon and Marc Nozell

Democrats have never quite mastered the art of the apocalypse like Republicans have. The GOP primary is all about a world on fire, to quote Ted Cruz—Islamists set on destroying us, an Iran with nuclear weapons, Russia and China the Big Bads hovering in the background, rapists running freely across the Mexican border, Planned Parenthood genociding babies and selling them for spare parts, an opposition bent on taking your guns and forcing Christians to abandon the teachings of Bible.

The Democrats, meanwhile, want to send you to college for free, make sure you can see a doctor, and give you time off work.

That sort of comparison is inescapable after watching the first Democratic primary debate on CNN Tuesday night, even if it's a bit unfair—the Republicans are trying to retake the presidency and so naturally want to make the situation after eight years of Barack Obama seem dire, and the easiest way to stand out in a crowded field is to amp up the fire and brimstone. Part of this difference comes down to party temperament, however: GOP voters appear to want to be told who the bad guys are, while Democrats seem to enjoy being reassured they're the good guys.

On Tuesday they got what they wanted, as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the three little candidates that could (Martin O'Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb), promised the audience that they would expand gun control, halt the abuses of evil banks, rein in big money's influence in politics, enact criminal justice and immigration reforms, raise taxes on the wealthy, work to end climate change, and provide people with health care, maternity leave, and college education. The problem of an intractable Republican-controlled Congress—as well as the complicated business of how to pay for all of that stuff—was ignored, probably because it doesn't make for good applause lines.

It's important to note that, as in the GOP debates, the Democratic candidates are largely in agreement about everything. (Excluding Webb, who was not so gung ho on gun control, opposes the Iran deal, and in general seemed like a man who had migrated over from the now-nonexistent moderate wing of the Republican Party.) The chief disagreements of the night came over who was the most anti-gun or the most anti-bank. During the discussion of the former, Sanders was beaten up by Clinton and O'Malley for having supported a bill prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers in the wake of shootings committed using their weapons. Then it was O'Malley and Sanders ganging up on Clinton for not being sufficiently aggressive when it comes to breaking up big banks.

Other than that—and Webb's constant griping that he wasn't getting enough time to talk—the night was largely acrimony-free. In the most quotable exchange of the evening, Sanders chimed in while Clinton was responding to a question from moderator Anderson Cooper about her private email server: "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails." Cue wild applause and a giant smile from Clinton.

A relatively serene night was probably good for the former secretary of state, who has remained the frontrunner despite a never-ending trickle of headlines about her storing of State Department emails on a private server. She dinged Sanders on being soft on guns, escaped relatively unscathed during questions about her support for the Iraq War and her flip-flopping over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even claimed that the Libya intervention and the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference were victories.

When Sanders launched a critique of capitalism and explained that he's Democratic socialist because he wants the US to be more like northern Europe (an answer that will almost certainly be trotted out in GOP attack ads if he ever makes it to the general election), Clinton said that "we are not Denmark" and added that she wants to "save capitalism from itself." She said she would go beyond Obama when it came to giving rights to undocumented immigrants through executive orders and other measures, and was the only candidate onstage to bring up the Republican war on Planned Parenthood—a move that brought almost as much applause as Sanders's "damn emails" remark.

O'Malley might have also gotten a boost from his performance. He was wooden in his opening statement, but managed to criticize both Sanders (on guns) and Clinton (on banks), while also staking a claim as the biggest climate hawk on the stage, as well as a supporter of Black Lives Matter. (His record as mayor of Baltimore is controversial because of aggressive policing policies; David Simon, for one, is not a fan.) He also delivered a closing statement about the high-mindedness and reasonableness of the Democratic debate when compared with the Republican events, and managed to look, if not presidential, vice-presidential at the least.

Chafee, for his part, came off robotic and uncomfortable while sticking to his single issue of not liking the Iraq War. His only bit of color came when he talked about making a bad vote in the Senate because his dad had just died, which is not something they teach in presidential campaign school.

Webb told everyone he killed a guy in 'Nam.

Meanwhile, Sanders remained the most interesting candidate in the race. He never made politics personal the way Clinton did when talking about her mother or her childhood, or the way the other candidates did when speaking about their kids. Though he had some verbal stumbles and talks like a man who has a bus to catch, his message is relatively simple: American politics has been corrupted by money, resulting in massive income inequality and a government that struggles to provide basic services for its citizens. His supporters love the purity of that message, and the way that Sanders is not afraid to advocate for unpopular positions like single-payer health care. Clinton framed herself as a "progressive who gets things done"; Sanders wants to be the guy leading a revolution.

Relatively late in the debate, Cooper asked a fair question: Given that Obama's 2008 agenda included some of the same things Sanders wants, but that the president couldn't achieve them because of Republican opposition, how would the senator from Vermont succeed where his predecessor had failed? The answer, basically, was that Sanders wants a wave of voters inspired by left-wing politics to sweep aside the Republican majorities and put the Democrats in power again.

"Bernie, I don't think the revolution is gonna come," Webb replied. "and I don't think Congress is gonna pay for a lot of this stuff."

He's not going to be president—and may even drop out soon—but at least Webb got one good line in.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.