Presidential debates are based on the first impressions made in the opening 15 minutes. Then, unless a fight breaks out, the impression settles in as a consensus. Issues and character are very important, but the overall impression remains as the foremost criteria.
Hillary was impressive, poised, charming, agreeable, experienced and called for a Democratic candidate to win in 2016. She was somewhere between acceptable and persuasive on every issue. She opened her difference with Bernie over his five votes against the Brady Bill and protection of immunity for gun dealers. This is not a time to appear soft on the gun lobby among Democratic primary voters.
Bernie gave Hillary a hand by denouncing the Congressional witchhunts against Hillary (“enough already, enough.”)
But Bernie can’t yet articulate why a majority will vote for a democratic socialist. Perhaps many of his supporters have a long-term goal of legitimizing socialism by lessening its stigma. Bernie showed strength by the grass roots numbers united behind him, and by his single focus on Wall Street.
A lot of voters favor modest socialist reforms like single-payer health care, free college tuition, and fair trade policies. But Bernie didn’t have an answer for the simple question of whether he supported capitalism when he could have embraced small business enterprises [as Sen. Elizabeth Warren does], especially in his home state of Vermont. Proposing Denmark, Sweden and Norway as models will not win the argument. Hillary’s rhetoric was more understandable, that we have to save capitalism from itself and create a New New Deal. Bernie’s answer to Hillary was too late and too weak: “Of course we should support small and medium-sized businesses, that’s the backbone of our economy.” Then he returned to taking power from the One Percent.
Hillary skipped her husband’s deregulation policies but effectively denounced the shadow banking predators and called for putting Wall Street criminals in jail.
Hillary flat-out won the debate about women’s reproductive rights and defense of Planned Parenthood.
The wars got little attention from the moderator and the candidates. But for anyone with a memory, the Iraq War with all its horrors, was not “the worst decision in American history” as Bernie argued. Six million people were killed in the Vietnam War, including five or six times the level of American deaths. Bernie didn’t explain why he supported the Afghanistan War and the Clinton policy of bombing Kosovo, a small crack in his foreign policy perspective. Hillary tried her best to explain the US overthrow of Kaddafi in Libya. Overall, little was clarified about the unaffordable, unwinnable, and unpopular wars.
Another cause that suffered badly in the debate was climate justice, a primary issue for younger voters. Hillary seemed to link herself to following Obama’s path to Paris while Bernie echoed her.
On black lives matter, the top candidates united for the first time against mass incarceration and police violence. CNN’s Van Jones emerged as a persuasive voice for youth of color and progressives overall.
O’Malley double-teamed with Hillary on several issues like gun violence. Its not forgotten that he endorsed her past presidential campaign. His positions on key issues will grow in influence while his support remains flat.
Hillary has deep support among women, African Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community and labor. Bernie is no likely to sway large numbers of those voters, giving his low standing in the polls.
The unity and cordiality shown in the debate creates favorable prospects in the all-important general election ahead. Bernie’s role, win or lose, will be to build a new continental army of progressives to take on the power elites in both parties.