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Don Roach: Grading Performances at the Democratic Debate

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Bernie Sanders

If you’re waking up this morning having watched or missed the Democratic debate, the main question after every debate is who won? 

I’ll waste no time and assert that there is no doubt that Bernie Sanders clearly won the debate.

First off, let me just say I finally get why Bernie Sanders has such an appeal. He sounds like your slightly-crazy grandfather who talks about how today’s youth are not as productive as his generation who fought in the war (World War II that is). But that same Grandpa is also the one you trust despite his cynicism and seemingly far-fetched stories. He always seems to know what’s wrong with the car, knows the right approach to that girl you thought was unapproachable, and the one-liners he delivers leaves you both in stitches and shaking your head. That is Bernie Sanders and he was center stage last night. 

Here are the highlights from each candidate and for Lincoln Chafee I use “highlights” very loosely. I’ll present the candidates in order of how well I think they did in last night’s debate.

Bernie Sanders – Grade A

Bernie Sanders performance during the debate can be summed up by his answer to a question about the Clinton e-mail scandal in which he said, “the America people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Throughout the night Sanders used candor, rhetoric, and charisma to frame the conversation and put forth his ideals. He hit on points like providing free education at America’s public colleges and universities, hammering again and again the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans (and corporations), and providing paid family leave. 

Throughout most of the debate I kept waiting to hear what Sanders had to say next about the issues. If there was a scale on who was the most credible candidate, Sanders would win hands down. He constantly used his hands to draw in the audience at home and in Nevada. I can’t stress Sanders’ ability in this space enough. 

Debates help Sanders and if you’re Hillary Clinton you don’t want to debate Bernie Sanders often because while he is not as polished as Clinton by any stretch, he’s consistent and his concern for the issues comes across as real and sincere – two characteristics Clinton has been challenged with throughout her political career. 

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton – Grade B+

I don’t know why, but whenever Hillary Clinton gets disdainful I feel it’s so rehearsed and latent with focus group propaganda. I don’t think that’s 100 percent true or fair, but I struggle to take Clinton for more than just a politician. She made several points about how bad the Republicans are in one breath while talking about her ability to reach across the aisle in the next breath. 

Pure politics.

Further, she refused to take a position about marijuana legalization, en masse, and provided a measured approval of medical marijuana. While that’s a relatively small point, it speaks to larger questions about Clinton’s consistency which she addressed throughout the night. At one point, Clinton stated that her opinions on some issues have changed because as she absorbs new information per positions evolved. The answer, in my opinion, fell a little flat with the crowd and with me as a voter. 

Overall, Clinton didn’t make a mistake tonight. She was well prepared for every question, stuck to her messaging, but what I’ve noticed about her throughout her career is that she doesn’t come across as sincere. She’s a well known commodity and I doubt anyone changed their mind about her from this debate. She’s polished, says the politically correct words to speak to her base, but isn’t someone who’s going to present ideas that force you to think nor does she have the rhetorical skills to keep you listening. 

Nonetheless, she was the second best performer of the night.

Michael O’Malley – Grade B

After O’Malley, former governor and mayor of Maryland and Baltimore respectively, fumbled out the gate with his response to racial unrest in Baltimore, he found his footing as the solid alternative to both Sanders and Clinton. Sanders may be viewed by some as too left-wing to win and Clinton comes with a ton of baggage that will make her campaign against any of the Republican challengers difficult. O’Malley, far beyond Webb and Chafee, presented a fairly strong other candidate that voters should consider. 

O’Malley reiterated throughout the night his accomplishments as governor (gun control laws) and reduced crime in Baltimore while mayor. Furthermoree, he served as the middle ground to Clinton’s particularly forceful foreign policy initiatives and Sanders’ relatively isolationist foreign agenda. The problem with O’Malley’s strategy which looks like an attempt to cut Sanders and Clinton in the middle is that there’s not a lot of room in the middle of Clinton and Sanders. Sanders may be portrayed as too far to the left, but he touches on issues that affect a number of non-extreme voters. Clinton will change positions, I mean absorb information, enough times to put herself in the best position to win and thus I don’t see her going to extremes.

Also, as O’Malley made his closing comments he tried to portray the debate’s participants as unlike the Republicans who were divisive and offensive but instead were very reasonable in the debate. Again, he tried to position himself in the middle and I believe that’s not a necessarily a winning strategy in this race.

Jim Webb & Lincoln Chafee Grade D & F

I’m combining these two candidates because they both stood out as being two people on this stage who should not be on this stage for long, in my opinion. Jim Webb struggled to get air time and when he did he couldn’t capture his thoughts well enough to be effectively coherent. For example, when talking about Affirmative Action Webb agreed that African Americans should be protected by these programs but he was not as interested in protecting other minorities of color. I found that a bit dubious and I doubt that wins him votes with any minorities.

And then there’s Lincoln Chafee. I don’t believe I have seen a worse performance in a nationally televised presidential debate than what we saw from Rhode Island’s former governor. Chafee fumbled through nearly every answer throughout the night and probably made the biggest gaffe of the night. During the debate, Chafee brought the issue of credibility into the conversation by mostly questioning Clinton’s credibility. However, when the conversation turned to a vote he cast as a new Senator that the candidates agreed has negatively affected the country Chafee essentially said he didn’t know what he was voting on, he had just entered the Senate after his father died, and that the vote was 90 to 5 implying that even if he voted against it, it still would have passed. 

This is coming from the same person who touts his vote against the Iraq War like a badge of honor. It was the worst moment of the night for any of the candidates and Chafee had a number of poor moments. Webb and Chafee should seriously consider dropping out of the race today and I won’t waste any more of our time talking about their performances.


I think the big takeaway from this debate is that this is a two horse race but I do believe there is room for a third candidate to challenge the frontrunners. Is Joe Biden that candidate or did O’Malley do enough in this debate to make voters believe he is the alternative? O’Malley made a valiant attempt but Clinton and Sanders are so strong in their respective wheelhouses that O’Malley could only manage to make himself look like a viable candidate rather than a serious contender to take down Clinton or Sanders. 

The winner in this debate was Sanders and I don’t think it was all that close. Time and again he was able to connect with the crowd, stay focused on the issues, and not come off as a garden variety politician. And we saw in 2008, that’s a winning strategy. Sanders certainly has to hope history will repeat itself and that people will stop talking about Clinton’s damn emails.

Don Roach is still a Young Republican. Please like his Facebook page.


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