Blog post by Joe Sageman:

After a pair of shockingly ignorant and hateful Republican debates, the first Democratic debate provided refreshingly civil and informed discussion on the issues. The Republican field, so far, has looked like a Pop Warner football team without a coach to pick the starting lineup. The candidates are utterly lost on the issues, but that doesn’t matter so much because their success is measured by how tough and macho an approach they take rather than whether or not they understand the X’s and O’s. That’s why Donald Trump has been able to land the quarterback job whereas John Kasich and Rand Paul have been stuck on the sidelines.

The Democrats, in contrast, have passed the debate test in flying colors. It’s as if they’re all reading from the answer key. Other than Republican Jim Webb, the candidates all shared positions on many of the most important issues. While Republicans are focused on undoing Obama’s policies, the Democrats offer a positive and comprehensive vision for the country. I’m proud of the emerging consensus behind a truly progressive platform that will empower Americans, expand opportunity, affirm the rights of marginalized groups, and narrow the tremendous inequality and injustice in our society.

On an individual basis, it was clear that Webb did not resonate with the Democratic Party and that Lincoln Chafee, while his platform is quite reasonable, was simply overmatched on stage. Martin O’Malley, on the other hand, turned in a highly impressive performance. He was sharp, articulate, and knowledgeable. The Democrats are desperate for younger leaders, and though O’Malley is no spring chicken at 52, he’s young enough to continue to be a player in the next several election cycles. Although he did not adequately answer for his failures in Baltimore (most notably his zero tolerance approach to crime), he did a nice job of separating himself on two main issues – gun control and clean energy – which helped him to build his identity as a candidate. He is ultimately not different enough from Clinton to leapfrog her in the polls barring some kind of massive implosion on Hillary’s part, but a strong campaign could land him a cabinet position or a better shot at the White House in four to eight years.

Bernie Sanders, unlike O’Malley, does have a plausible path to the nomination because he presents a clear alternative to Clinton, although there’s no doubt that he’s a clear underdog. He gave the audience largely what it expected: a booming Brooklyn accent, lots of passion, and an attempt to relate every issue back to his core prescription of reducing income inequality. Bernie rarely – if ever – touches foreign policy on the campaign trail, but looked somewhat comfortable discussing Syria, Russia, and Middle East policy. He stressed his experiences working with veterans, clarified that he’s not a pacifist, and made a commitment to acting more multilaterally in the world. He took progressive stances on gun control and immigration, which were both question marks for him entering the debate, and was unequivocal in his belief that climate change is the greatest national security threat facing America.

As good as Bernie was on the issues, he was not an especially effective communicator. He had too many long, awkward pauses and relied on his favorite talking points as crutches. While those are certainly forgivable faults, his angry tone is a little more concerning. I love his fiery style. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and his genuine outrage is admirable for a politician. With that being said, that outrage is better suited for a gadfly than a leader. Bernie is proud of being on the right side of several 99-1 votes in Congress (like the Patriot Act), but his outlier status won’t be especially useful in the White House. The president has to unify the country in difficult moments and remain flexible and pragmatic in the face of partisan opposition. While I applaud Bernie for being so principled, I do wonder whether he has the temperament to be commander-in-chief.

Hillary, on the other hand, passed the eyeball test with ease. She was in her element during the debate, sporting an ear-splitting grin while deflecting attacks with a nonchalant, almost arrogant self-assuredness. She had tremendous answers for her Iraq War vote and for the wealth and privilege that come with her last name. In short, she left no doubt that she’s the most seasoned politician and qualified candidate in the race. She’s not just the frontrunner by default.

The traditional criticisms of Hillary all came up during the debate, but for the most part, the other candidates did not blame her directly for Benghazi or the email scandal. I, too, feel that both issues have become quite partisan, exaggerated in scope, and detached from fact. However, Hillary’s attempts to distance herself from Wall Street’s financial interests were thoroughly unconvincing, and she did not have a satisfactory answer for her flip-flops. No serious political observer doubts that she is informed on the issues, but voters do worry that she does not have strong ethics or convictions and that she tends to opt for the politically expedient course over the one she believes in. She must do a better job of rehabilitating her image to convince voters that she will stand by them even when it may be inconvenient to do so.

The next Democratic debate will take place on November 14 in Iowa. A crucial state on the path to the nomination, Iowa will be the first Democratic caucus on February 1.

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