Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders squared off in the fifth Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire on Thursday night. I watched, and picked some of the best and worst of the night.
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– Hillary Clinton: This was not a debate in which Clinton scored a knockout blow. It was one, however, that she won on points. Clinton came out super aggressive in the debate’s first 30 minutes, pushing Sanders back on his heels on, well, everything: Guns, experience, the tenor of the campaign, what it means to be progressive and plenty of other things.
There are those who will see Clinton’s tone in those first 30 minutes as over the top and, therefore, ineffective, but it seemed to me that she set up lots and lots of attacks that she can follow through on beyond New Hampshire. (Clinton made clear — at least to my eyes — that she understands the New Hampshire primary is a lost cause. More on that below.)
When the subject moved to foreign policy in the debate’s second hour, Clinton was clearly more at ease than Sanders and effectively made the case that now isn’t the time to put someone in the Oval Office who needs to learn on the job.
It was far from a perfect debate for Clinton. She struggled, again, to explain the speaking fees she took as a private citizen and pointedly refused the opportunity to release the transcripts of those speeches. Her response (or lack thereof) ensures the issue will linger.
– Two-person debates: There’s a reason that networks try to limit the number of people on stage during these debates. This debate — the first one-on-one showdown of the 2016 primary season — proved that less is more in debates. The first hour was the best hour of any debate of this election: substantive, confrontational and entertaining. Both candidates had plenty of time to make their cases to voters and, more importantly, voters had a chance to get a deep look at what these two people believe and where they differ.
– Split screens: I am on the record as wanting a channel — online would be fine — that runs a split screen the entire time when the candidates are talking. If the NFL can have 20 different camera angles to watch every play, why can’t I have this one little thing? I mean, if we could have more of this, why wouldn’t you want it?
– Chuck Todd/Rachel Maddow: Moderating a debate for state Senate is hard. Moderating a presidential debate is really tough. Chuck and Rachel did the thing that is both hardest and best for moderators at this level: They let the candidates actually debate. There is nothing that drives me crazier than when a moderator steps into the middle of a genuine conversation/disagreement between two (or more) candidates in order to move on to some other topic. The whole point of a debate is to figure out where the differences are and how each candidates explains those differences, not to try to see who can ask the most questions. Chuck and Rachel got out of the way of the candidates Thursday night, which is exactly what good moderators should do.
Also, kudos to the duo for asking thoughtful questions that haven’t been asked of the candidates a thousand times before; Chuck’s question to Sanders about why he wasn’t taking public financing for the primary campaign was an A+.
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– Bernie Sanders: I hesitate to put the Vermont socialist in the “loser” category because he did very little in the debate that will slow his momentum heading into a near-certain New Hampshire win. But, I also hate when analysts and reporters take the easy way out when picking winners and losers. It was a two-person debate; if Clinton won then Sanders, by definition, didn’t win. (This is the problem with using the binary choice of “winner” and “loser” to grade debates. But, I digress.)
I thought Sanders was forceful and effective, as always, when talking about economic inequality and campaign finance reform. I thought he may have allowed himself to be put in a box as a single or double issue candidate down the line by Clinton, however.
Sanders also continued to struggle when the debate moved off of domestic issues and onto matters of foreign policy. On a question about what the right next steps were regarding American troops in Afghanistan, Sanders’s answer was rambling and generally non-sensical.
– New Hampshire: Clinton pledged repeatedly to fight for every vote in New Hampshire. But, if you read between the lines of some of her statements, it was clear that she understands that the Granite State primary is probably already over. Her first big attack on Sanders was on his alleged lack of commitment to gun control including votes against the Brady Bill. That attack won’t play well in New Hampshire, a Second Amendment-friendly state, and Clinton knows it. But, she also knows that among Democrats nationally, being the candidate regarded as more liberal on gun control is a good place to be.
Clinton’s decision to travel to Flint, Michigan — announced just before the debate — just 48 hours before the New Hampshire vote is another signal that she has her eye beyond the Granite State already. New Hampshire, which fashions itself the picker of presidents (or at least presidential nominees), almost certainly won’t get the attention it has in past primary fights.
– Democratic National Committee: Remind me again why a) there weren’t more debates on the primary calendar initially and b) those that were scheduled were put at times when no one would watch them?
Time: I initially had the 90-minute debate length in the “winners” column because that felt like plenty of time for the two candidates to hash out their differences and for us all to go to bed at a reasonable hour. I moved it to the “losers” column when the debate went beyond its scheduled 10:30 pm eastern end time. Then past 10:45 pm. Then past 11 pm. Come on man. What we doing out there, man?