Initial Thoughts on the October 13 DNC Debate

A lot of people have asked me what I think about last night’s debate, specifically Bernie Sanders’ performance.  I am not nearly an expert on anything, but I rant about stuff a lot so I guess some people wanted to know what I think.  Here it is:

Presidential debates in the U.S. are dog and pony shows.  What wins a debate in a presidential campaign is not a candidate’s ideals, voting record, or aptitude for presidential responsibilities, but rather the appearance of those things over the course of the debate.  Perceptions of these things by viewers can be affected by the things the candidates say, their demeanor, their body language, and by things asserted by their opponents.

Overall, Sanders won the debate.  He did not “crush it” like many people are saying.  While most public polling shows him winning the debate by a massive margin, this simply means that a lot of people think he won.  It doesn’t mean people think he won by a lot.

Sanders did crush the other candidates on a few issues, including income inequality, toughening regulations on Wall Street, and economic principles in general.  He clearly pointed out Hillary’s ties to Wall Street, her turbulent voting record, and her flip-flopping on key issues.  Sanders was also the only candidate to delve into the complexities of issues (such as his voting record on key gun control legislation) rather than play it safe by making slick and salable generalities.  He appeared more educated and more genuinely concerned about domestic issues than any other candidate.

Sanders lacks the foreign policy prowess that Hillary has.  Even if her foreign policy ideals are amorphous and sometimes disastrous historically, she was the only candidate on stage last night who appeared to be capable of navigating the current global dynamic.  That’s not to say Sanders couldn’t deftly lead U.S. foreign policy, but he sure didn’t appear as capable as Hillary.  People will want to know more about where he stands before being confident in him.

One of the things that I was disappointed in Sanders for was that he did not clearly explain democratic socialism and how it’s not something to be explicitly associated with pure socialism or communism.  Those educated on Sanders already understand this, but those who are not educated on this differentiation may not have been won over by his brief and vague classification of his socioeconomic ideals.  And of course, Republicans continue to have a field day falsely claiming that a communist is running for president.

Hillary was by far the most well-groomed, politically correct, and “electable” candidate.  She has more experience with presidential politics than nearly anyone in the U.S. and certainly more than anyone on the stage last night.  She knew how to get her message across, how to say what she needed to within time limits, and how to drive home the theses of her campaign with each response.  Unfortunately, many of her positions are poll-driven, recently adopted, and/or not backed up by her political history, but many people won’t check that.  She sounded fantastic and acted more genuinely human than ever before, and that is what matters most in the U.S. today, unfortunately.

O’Malley showed that he was more awake than he usually is in public settings, but that’s not saying much.  He babbled his own self destruction early on in a Valium-imbibed reply to Anderson’s question about his record on crime in Baltimore and zero-tolerance policing.  He also showed how out of touch he is with the city and state he ran by claiming that rural areas were happy with his gun control and by harping on solar technology, something that Maryland and Baltimore show no signs of.  O’Malley probably gained ground with non-Marylanders who saw him speak smoothly and purposefully about a wide variety of issues and with no major gaffes, other than clumsily saying that Assad invaded Syria.

Jim Webb was in an unfortunate situation but he responded to it very immaturely, which immediately showed he is not presidential material.  As Anderson pointed out, Webb agreed to the debate rules ahead of time and needed to respect them.  Webb responded by making snotty, whiny remarks at every turn and wasting more of his supposedly precious time by complaining about the debate rather than simply making the points he’d begged to have the opportunity to make.

Lincoln Chafee.  I can’t help but like the guy, but not in a presidential way.  More like a “here’s your teddy bear, Lincoln; would you like a bedtime story before I tuck you in? I’m sorry the big kids were so mean to you” kind of way.  He’s a lot smarter than he seemed in the public setting of last night’s debate, but his appearance as a total airhead and softie makes him utterly unelectable in the U.S.  He’s not nearly ready to play with the big kids.  He also didn’t inspire confidence that he’d be able to make any impact whatsoever on foreign affairs.  He’s the kind-hearted, bumbling dork at whom kids threw paper airplanes during presentations in high school.  Like it or not, that soft-spoken, aloof, meekness does not make a good leader or public figure.

Sanders came out on top, both in my eyes and in public polling.  However, rather than rest on his laurels (which I doubt he ever would), he needs to adopt a specific and measured stance on foreign policy and he needs to better communicate what his breed of democratic socialism is, placing specific emphasis on the preservation of capitalism and differentiating it from communism.  This dichotomy is something that Robert Reich (former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton) quite often speaks about very clearly.  If Sanders can fix these two things, he’ll be poised to take a resounding victory over Hillary in the next debate, which airs Sunday, November 14 on CBS.

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