The Third Democratic Debate Showed the Candidates at Their Best, Until the Moderators Got in the Way

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Saturday night showcased an bonafide debate. Photo: Ida Mae Astute/ABC/Getty Images

Greetings, people who were doing something better with their Saturday nights before Christmas than watching a Democratic debate! (Really, short of traveling back in time to air the debate on the night of each of our 21st birthdays, the DNC could not possibly have done more to keep this debate safe from the prying eyes of voters, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

Here’s what you missed: a thoroughly substantive, respectful, funny debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (and Martin O’Malley, who was, again, a participant) that was going extremely well until it was driven completely off the rails by its startlingly inept moderators. 

The evening began with a mutual and classy deescalation of the controversy over the Sanders campaign’s exploitation of a data breach and the ensuing overreaction of everyone involved. Moderators Martha Raddatz and David Muir dove into the debacle with their first question, apparently eager to get Clinton and Sanders to attack each other, a look that would have flattered neither of them. But both candidates were smarter than that, and than their party apparatus: Bernie swiftly acknowledged that the actions taken by one or more of his staffers were “wrong” and apologized to Hillary; Hillary accepted his apology and suggested that they move on to things voters actually care about. And then, just like adults, they were done.

Hooray!

The debate moved on to issues of gun control, college costs, terrorism, and foreign policy. The two front-runners really could not have been nicer to one another; even when going after Hillary on foreign policy, Sanders called her only “a little bit too aggressive” in her enthusiasm for regime change; Clinton in turn reminded Sanders that he’d voted to support regime change in Libya. But mostly, they were discussing no-fly zones, background checks, and coalition-building like people who knew their stuff and disagreed about it in wholly reasonable ways. When an unusually combative O’Malley decided to challenge both Clinton and Sanders on their gun control records, the two — who have clashed with each on the issue in the past — went shoulder-to-shoulder, handily squishing him. O’Malley later attempted to pull off a line about how he could offer “a different generation’s perspective” on foreign policy approaches (at 52, he is only 15 years younger than Hillary Clinton; they both qualify as baby-boomers). He got roundly booed by the audience.

Mostly, Sanders and Clinton were playing their A-games. Sanders spoke far more nimbly on foreign policy than he has in previous debates and was as forceful as ever on his economic positions. But he also came off as warmer tonight, teasing Clinton good-naturedly by echoing her phrasing in response to a jab, “My name was invoked!” He presented an inspired, honest take on how economic inequality and unease about terrorism have together created conditions that allow Donald Trump’s xenophobic fearmongering to resonate; Clinton nodded throughout his explanation.

Clinton was, for the most part, strong on the economy, citing her commitment to raising the minimum wage, lowering prescription-drug costs and college tuition, and supporting the Paycheck Fairness Act. She performed the triple-axel move of applauding the Affordable Care Act, describing the many ways it needs to be fixed and citing her own long, hard history with health-care reform without breaking a sweat. 

She was also — and this matters a lot for a candidate who will be dogged by “likability” questions for the rest of her life — immensely winning on Saturday night, full of quips and laugh lines that really worked. After the first commercial break, Clinton had not yet returned to the stage, making this the second debate at which a trip to the ladies room went into overtime. She walked back on coolly, purring her “sorry” with impeccable timing. Later, when asked to respond to the fact that big banks love her, she got off another one-liner: “I think everybody should like me!” And she concluded the evening with a straight-faced “May the Force be with you.” This was especially resonant because Clinton appeared to be wearing Yoda’s beige robe … if Yoda’s robe had also been a Slanket with extra-large pockets. (Attention, angry tweeters: I will defend discussion of Clinton’s clothing till the end of time, so don’t bother yelling at me.)

The high quality of the debate — the knowledge, experience, good cheer, and respect shown all around — again called into question the inane decision-making of the Democratic National Committee. Why on earth are they trying to hide their smart, capable, appealing candidates from the world? The Republicans terrify the nation practically every week with their racist, sexist showboating, yet somehow the Democratic Party thinks it wise to hide its competent alternatives away. I get the theory that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz tucked these debates away in an effort to put her finger on the scale for Hillary; this may well be the case. But it’s a really bad case, succeeding only in giving the impression that Clinton needs special help when in fact she’s killed it in two of the three debates so far. Sanders has been great, too, and the idea that only a tiny fraction of the country will have tuned in is terrible for the Democratic Party and its front-running candidates.

But the DNC’s poor choices pale in comparison to the choices of Saturday night’s ABC News moderators, the usually terrific Raddatz and her colleague, World News anchor Muir. They did fine for the first hour, but as the candidates began to actually debate each other in compelling and important ways, Muir especially began to talk over them in an effort to cut them off and adhere to the rules. That precision reffing may be necessary when it comes to shutting down an offensive monologue from Donald Trump, or halting a candidate’s whine about not getting enough time. But when, as on Saturday, the top contenders for the nomination are engaging each other seriously about tax policy, drowning them out and preventing the audience from hearing what they have to say doesn’t do anyone any favors.

This was particularly evident in an exchange over Clinton’s dispiriting pledge not to raise middle-class taxes. Sanders challenged her directly on one of the most perplexing side-effects of that vow: How does that commitment square with Kirsten Gillibrand’s Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a bill that would provide paid leave to Americans via a payroll tax amounting to around $1.50 a week? Support for paid family leave is a mainstay of Clinton’s campaign, but she hasn’t been explicit about how she’d pay for it. Her no-middle-class-tax pledge indicates that she wouldn’t support Gillibrand’s plan, despite the fact that Gillibrand is her ally and someone she has publicly referred to as “a champion” of the paid-leave fight. So, Bernie Sanders asked her directly, how can she reconcile a support for family leave with a promise not to raise taxes? This is a crucial, exciting question, and Hillary had just begun to answer it — something about how she’s going to tax wealthy people — when Muir cut her off, citing the rules, and turned to Martin O’Malley — a man with approximately no chance of becoming the Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 — and allowed him to reflect on income-tax policy in Maryland, where he was governor.

It was maddening. Why have a debate if we’re not going to allow the candidates to ask pointed questions of each other and air the answers?

But, then again, why have a debate that includes questions on health care and economic inequality, but none on abortion? Yes, I understand that all three candidates agree that abortion should be safe and legal, but you cannot tell me that there are no strategic questions to be asked of people who would be leading a nation in which the procedure remain accessible to some Americans but has become largely inaccessible to others? There is a staggering inequality of opportunity and health-care options; how would these candidates address this chasm? Do any of them support Barbara Lee’s EACH Woman Act, which would essentially reverse the Hyde Amendment, which prevents Americans from using federal-insurance programs to pay for abortions in almost all cases?

This is the third debate in which there have been no questions acknowledging the national crisis in reproductive care; tonight, as in the other debates, Clinton reflexively mentioned efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, and Sanders briefly acknowledged the mass shooting that recently took place at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

But instead of making inquiries about anything so real as limited access to abortion and birth-control services, especially for poor women and women of color, Raddatz made the mind-boggling choice to ask about the candidates’ spouses, beginning, of course, with Hillary. Since First Ladies have traditionally played hostess and dealt with domestic responsibilities, Raddatz began — in what felt like a slow-motion car crash of a query — what role would Clinton’s husband Bill play? 

The degree to which this question sucked is hard to describe. It left Hillary stuck; she could not have told us that Bill would oversee the meal-planning and china patterns because (a) he wouldn’t and (b) clearly the idea of a man (a former president!) doing such silly (lady!) things is hilariously awful enough that it merited a debate question. But she also couldn’t tell the truth, which is that she would delegate it to a staffer, because that would make her sound imperious and unfeminine. So what we got was Hillary Rodham Clinton assuring the nation that, if elected president, she would still be picking dishes and making decisions about flower arrangements, which is red-hot garbage, because the truth is that President Hillary Rodham Clinton would be very, very busy being president.

But thanks, ABC, for driving home the point that that possibility remains a quirky and largely inconceivable reversal of the natural order! Because not only did Hillary get the Bill question, but both Sanders and O’Malley got asked, basically, whether they take their wives seriously enough to give them offices or include them as intellectual equals.

It is not the biggest deal in the world, and it will not define the debate or the election or the Democratic candidates, who are, all of them, participating eagerly and respectfully in the process of redefining who can lead this country. It is interesting that we’ve never had a First Man before, and I suppose it’s fair enough to acknowledge it in a debate. (I joke about wardrobe, after all, because I think it’s interesting that we’ve rarely seen women’s clothes on presidential debate stages before.)

But it is also irritating and telling that there was more curiosity expressed by a moderator over wacky gender reversals in the White House than there was over what these candidates would do to help the hundreds of thousands of Texas women who attempt to self-abort.

I mean, come on. Help us, people. These candidates are our only hope.