Perhaps the best way for me to examine what happened of consequence in the ABC Democratic debate Saturday night is to look at the factors to look for I raised in my preview and see how the candidates and questioners resolved them.
1. Spinoff earned-media winner: Clinton.
The moment that will almost certainly be replayed the most in the brief period of interest in this low-viewership debate was Clinton’s corny but perfectly timed shout-out to the new Star Wars movie at the very end. It was a good example of how a prefab line can match or exceed the impact of any dynamic interaction between candidates. Somebody on Team Clinton deserves a light saber for Christmas.
All three candidates’ shots at Donald Trump will probably also make some recaps. And the news outlets that were breathlessly consumed by the nothing-burger of a “scandal” over campaign data breaches may adjudge the interchange between Sanders and Clinton on that subject at the beginning of the debate as a big deal, though both said it wasn’t.
There seems to be some initial confusion as to whether Clinton’s “no new taxes on the middle class” statement shifted her position from a “goal” to a “pledge,” but we’ll see how her campaign plays that in the days just ahead.
The general media consensus that the debate didn’t break much new ground will likely limit the attention it is paid, depending on whether a new poll or a new wild-ass statement from or about Donald Trump provides a shinier object.
2. Moderator behavior: Martha Raddatz goes all Lindsey Graham.
The format ABC used for the debate did not, like the prior CNN debates, focus on making candidates directly respond to past attacks on them by other candidates. It was pretty straightforward, though the haziness of the rules governing rebuttals made out-of-order interjections — mostly by Martin O’Malley — more likely than they might have been.
But what really stood out were a couple of lines of questioning by Martha Raddatz on the Middle East. She seems determined, based apparently on her own reporting in the region, to challenge the idea that anything short of a major deployment of ground troops could make a difference against ISIS. This led to a rather sneering exchange with Clinton in which she seemed to suggest that a semi-secret Special Forces presence is no different in kind than the kind of invasion force some Republicans are contemplating. Edgier yet was Raddatz’s when-will-you-stop-beating-your-spouse demand that Clinton quantify exactly how much responsibility she should bear for the “chaos” in Libya.
Meanwhile, there were no questions about climate change, the defense budget, executive powers, the Supreme Court, or a lot of other significant issues.
It says a lot about contemporary media standards that Politico’s top story on the debate was a celebration of Raddatz’s success in going “toe-to-toe” with HRC.
3. Bernie Sanders did not go for the jugular.
Every time he noted a difference of opinion between himself and Hillary Clinton, Sanders seemed to pull his punches — noting that a subject (Syria) was really complicated; that Clinton was very knowledgeable (health care); or that intra-Democratic differences were vastly less significant than the gap between donkeys and elephants. When the subject of Wall Street attitudes came up, he chose to emphasize how much the Gucci-shoe crowd hates him rather that how much they like Hillary. He actually may have shown the most heat on an important but wonky policy distinction that most viewers likely didn’t get: that Clinton’s preference for means-testing benefits and avoiding middle-class tax burdens is out of line with the spirit and the substance of the New Deal with its universal benefits and universal cost-sharing.
Both Sanders and O’Malley made it abundantly and redundantly clear they disagree with Clinton on what to do with Assad, much as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump did with Marco Rubio in the last GOP debate (the smarter brand of pundit will probably be talking about that parallel in the days just ahead). But while Sanders was clever in suggesting HRC has a habit of supporting “regime changes” that began with her vote on Iraq (which of course cannot be brought up too often), the way he talked about it made the habit sound like it was on the order of an excessive taste for carbs or bad music. He could have played off Raddatz’s badgering of HRC to express concern that the logic of her position points to another massive U.S. military quagmire in the Middle East. But he didn’t quite go there.
I suggested in the preview that Sanders’s strategy might be to hold steady and beat expectations in Iowa in order to score a breakthrough in New Hampshire. His approach in the ABC debate was consistent with that scenario: he did not take big risks or aim at some major takedown of Clinton.
4. The GOP was definitely the silent debating partner.
The occasional references of all three candidates to the extremism of the GOP and its indifference to big issues like income inequality were more noticeable than in past debates, though not remotely as metronomic as the denunciations of Obama and Clinton (and the ghost of Saul Alinsky) in all of the Republican debates. Some observers will probably claim the Democrats are already beginning to make their general-election pitch. But more likely, the pachyderm-bashing was designed to get easy applause and also to contextualize the inter-candidate friction. Both the viable Democrats have reasons to cast a cloak of partisan unity over the blood drawn by either.
5. Martin O’Malley really doesn’t want to be U.S. Ambassador to Ireland.
Mr. 3-percent-in-the-polls got off to an abrasive, John Kasich-like start, whined about the time he was getting, and was notably more combative toward Clinton than was Sanders. His signature moment, though, was when he interrupted a discussion of the Middle East between the two candidates who actually have a chance of winning the nomination to say it was time to “offer a different generation’s perspective,” suggesting that the 74-year-old Sanders and the 68-year-old Clinton were mired in Cold War thinking. As will undoubtedly be pointed out, the 52-year-old O’Malley spent the first half of his life in the Cold War era; he’s not exactly a Millennial, and he’s a lot closer to Medicare eligibility than to the salad days of youth. But it’s part of his shtick, and it’s not a good sign that the audience (otherwise rather positively inclined towards O’Malley) broke out in boos mixed with sighs of exasperation. He’s definitely not acting like he’s auditioning for a job in a hypothetical Clinton administration.
All in all, the debate did nothing to change the dynamics of the Democratic contest, and much of what was said will soon be forgotten. There will be another debate in January, and then we will find out if Bernie Sanders really is counting on his field organization and an exceed-the-expectations strategy instead of any game-change-y debate moments to close the gap with Clinton. As for HRC, she’s already regained the “inevitability” factor she came into the Invisible Primary carrying. Even if Sanders somehow wins Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton still has a far more plausible path to the nomination, thanks to her standing in the many states that are not as honkified and activist-dominated as the first two. But the whole world will still be watching her for a stumble. It did not happen at St. Anselm’s College.