Five Takeaways from the Democrats’ first presidential debate

By Dave Andrusko

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Editor’s note. The lead to this story has been updated to reflect more accurate numbers released later in the day.

Reading the Baltimore Sun this afternoon, I learned that last night’s first Democratic presidential debate, moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, was seen by an average audience of 15.3 million viewers,according to Nielsen Fast National ratings. That compares with 25 million people who watched the first Republican debate.

Here are five takeaways from the responses of the all pro-abortion lineup of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee.

#1. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to confirm what was anticipated going in: Clinton lapped the field. She has come a long way from 2008 when a grumpy, at times seething Clinton debated then candidate Barack Obama.

The obvious deference paid to her by the four men helped. As much as some headlines talked about the “exchanges” between Clinton and Sanders, the simple truth is that when Cooper asked the other candidates about their ever-so-mild pre-debate critiques of Clinton, they folded like a cheap suitcase. As for Sanders himself, he was on the receiving end of some barbed comments from Clinton which he handled poorly.

#2. On her homerun trot Clinton touched all the Democratic bases. But Cooper did not ask about abortion. Why? Did he worry that there would not be unanimity? Of course not. Was he concerned Clinton, the frontrunner, would make (for a Democratic audience) a faux pas? Hardly. Clinton has honed her message–and she was in front of friends.

So what did Clinton do? She shoehorned in a fiery defense of Planned Parenthood, after being set up with a soft-ball question from CNN’s Dana Bash about some saying paid family leave is too expensive for small businesses:

CLINTON: Well, look, you know, when people say that — it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, “You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care.” They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it.

Is she really positing a kind of inverted moral equivalence between paying for family leave–often to care for a newborn, which Clinton says is good–and protecting those same babies earlier in their lives from being torn to shreds, their arms and legs twisted off by brute manual force, using a long stainless steel clamping tool, which is bad? Yes, she is.

#3. Since Clinton is the frontrunner and Sanders (at best) a temporary waystation for the party’s outer fringe, you might have expected Webb, O’Malley, and/or Chafee to seize the opportunity and pick up their game. To put it politely, they didn’t. In the case of Chafee, it was painful to watch. O’Malley was robotic (a charge usually thrown at Clinton) and Webb is the kind of Democrat who might have run with success twenty-five years ago.

#4. Almost by definition, last night’s debate would be far more sedate than the first two Republican debates. There were only five candidates on stage, for one thing. For another, the four men walked on eggshells, fearing the inevitable backlash if they were seen as piling on (aka criticizing) Clinton. And

#5. I don’t think it is partisan to say that the Democratic bench is embarrassingly thin. The Republican presidential field offers a wealth of candidates with impressive careers in government and private business.

Note as well that whomever carries the day for the Republicans, those who don’t can look forward to another day. Can anyone say that about Sanders, Webb, O’Malley, or Chafee?