For better or worse, Democratic debate short on drama

Good morning Austin:

The dramatic highlight of last night’s third Democratic presidential debate, held at St. Anselm College in Goffstown, N.H., came right after the mid-debate bathroom break.

David Muir, the ABC anchor, who is so good looking that he could be the guy who would play the network anchor, except that he actually is an anchor, set the scene.

muirMUIR: Welcome back tonight. As you can see, we have a packed faudience here in New Hampshire and we’re going to continue. We’ve already had a spirited conversation here at the top of the broadcast about ISIS, about the concerns of terror here on the homefront and as we await Secretary Clinton backstage, we’re going to begin on the economy.

We want to turn to the American jobs, wages and raises in this country. And we believe Secretary Clinton will be coming around the corner any minute. But in the meantime we want to start with this eye-opening number. And Senator Sanders, this question goes to you first, anyway.

In 1995, the median American household income was $52,600 in today’s money. This year, it’s $53,600. That’s 20 more years on the job with just a 2 percent raise. In a similar time-frame, raises for CEOs went up more than 200 percent.

Wait a minute.

As we await Secretary Clinton backstage …

And we believe Secretary Clinton will be coming around the corner any minute …

But in the meantime …

In the meantime?

What is going on here?

In the meantime, there was a candidate-less podium at center stage, between the podiums occupied by Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

For a fleeting moment, one could conjure up images of some kind of Harrison Ford/Liam Neeson/Angelina Jolie/Uma Thurman action movie scene unfolding backstage. Was HRC employing her seldom-deployed mixed martial arts skills – perhaps in tandem with her sleek body woman/aide-de-camp Huma Abedin – to fend of terrorists seeking to swipe her from a prime-time pre-Christmas debate and hold the American electoral system hostage?

Kind of Air Force One meets Kill Bill.




Apparently, this was just a mundane, fact-of-life, it-takes-a-woman-a-little-longer-than-a-man-to-duck-in-and-out-of -the-restroom moment and, America, get used to it.

(From Donald Trump Sunday morning on Meet the Press: “Hillary’s not strong. Hillary’s weak frankly. She’s got no stamina. She’s got nothing. She couldn’t even get back on the stage. Nobody even knows what happened to her. It’s like she went home and went to sleep.”)

The real puzzle was why ABC, which did not seem to be hewing to some kind of crisp schedule,  could not have simply given the former first lady, New York senator, secretary of state and presently at least even money to be the next president, another 90 seconds to get back in her place as the center square before resuming the debate.

It is not like they shouldn’t have seen this coming.

Here from Slate’s coverage of the Democratic debate in October in Las Vegas:

Hillary Clinton has noted, at Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in Las Vegas, that electing a woman as president of the United States would be a historic first. She also, it seems fair to say, just became the first presidential candidate to make reference during a debate to how long it takes women to pee.

 The transcript:

Anderson Cooper: And welcome back to this CNN democratic presidential debate. It has been quite a night so far. We are in the final block of this debate. All the candidates are back, which I’m very happy to see.


It’s a long story. Let’s continue. Secretary Clinton, welcome back.

Clinton: Well, thank you. You know, it does take me a little longer. That’s all I can say.

Right. Except, per this excellent explainer from Amy Chozick at the New York Times, the deck was absolutely stacked against Clinton in Goffstown.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — As the third Democratic debate faded to a five-minute commercial break, Hillary Clinton had exactly one minute and 45 seconds to walk out of the gymnasium at St. Anselm College to the ladies’ restroom and one minute and 45 seconds to return to her place on stage.

Not a lot of wiggle room.

With the men’s room significantly closer to the debate stage, Mrs. Clinton’s male opponents, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, made it back quicker and, well, it takes women longer, as Mrs. Clinton pointed out after returning slightly late from a commercial break during the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas.

But on Saturday, the ABC News hosts, tied to the schedule of live TV, proceeded with their questioning about the economy with an empty podium awaiting Mrs. Clinton. “Sorry,” she deadpanned when she finally took her place.

Aides said they had been concerned during the walk through before the debate that the ladies room was such a schlep. The campaign’s vice chairwoman, Huma Abedin, had timed the distance to and from the podium and expressed concerns to organizers, but the gymnasium setting meant there were no closer options. She relayed to Mrs. Clinton that she would have to be speedy, said several aides involved in debate planning.

In the end, the moment became one of the most talked about of what seemed an otherwise low-impact debate. The momentarily empty podium prompted jokes that Mrs. Clinton, so focused on defeating the Republicans, had, perhaps, decided to watch the primary debate from a Manchester bar, with a row of glistening ladies’ rooms nearby.

Anyway, picking up where we left off from Saturday night, Clinton returned to the stage to applause, and offered a simple, elegant, “Sorry.”

And then, from Muir:

We’re going to continue here, and Secretary, you’ll get a chance on this too.

Well that’s nice.

But, with Clinton’s reappearance, any chance of any real drama emerging from last night’s debate was gone.

Not that the Democrats seemed very intent on gaining an audience for last night’s event.

The debate schedule for the Democrats does seem intended to minimize any harm that could be done to  Clinton’s front-runner status.

Saturday night is better known as a date night, not a debate night.

And the Saturday before Christmas leans heavily toward family not politics.

Also, viewers had choices.

There was the Jets-Cowboys game, which I suppose might serve as a surrogate preview of a Clinton-Cruz general election race. (Sorry Ted.)

There was a rebroadcast of the Wiz, which set the twitterverse aflame when it was first broadcast.

And, there was, of course, the mesmerizing and under-appreciated Yule Log.

Apart from its ratings-proof scheduling, the Democratic race simply lacks the drama of the Republican race, which is among the most interesting and uncertain of my lifetime with a bona fide reality TV star center stage.

With the Iowa caucuses barely more than a month way, the clear front-runner for the Republican nomination – Donald Trump – is a larger-than-life figure who has proved doubters wrong, again and again, and yet still seems unlikely to ultimately make it to the White House.

The Republican contest, with its rich ensemble cast, has intricate plots and subplots. It’s gripping and entertaining, if often dumbfounding.

Particularly, coming at this time of year, there is something familiarly festive about the recent Republican debate – another raucous affair, crowded with jostling personalities. And, they even continue to have, in the spirit of the holidays, a kid’s table debate.

The Democratic debate, on the other hand, has a kind of sad, empty-nester air to it. There’s Sanders, 74, and Clinton, 68, and the young upstart, O’Malley, a mere 52 – but still eight years older than the GOP kids – 44-year-oldsTed Cruz and Marco Rubio.

Getty Images
Getty Images

And, it will be very exciting if the Democratic race doesn’t go the way we think it’s going to go. Very exciting, and really, very unlikely.

Here are the two most recent national polls, courtesy Real Clear Politics.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 11.44.27 PM

The last time Hillary Clinton ran for president – in 2008 – she was part of a Democratic race for the ages that completely overshadowed a pretty good Republican race involving John McCain’s impressive comeback.

Clinton was seeking to become the first woman to be elected president and she was overtaken by a newcomer who, almost out of nowhere, was elected America’s first black president. Their contest generated uncommon interest and participation.

Sanders has generated large crowds and some excitement. His particular strength in Iowa and New Hampshire was, at first blush, surprising, and, given what happened to Clinton the last time she was the clear front-runner, significant. But while Sanders is still running first in New Hampshire, he has slid to second in Iowa, and it is hard to construct a scenario where he would turn even winning both Iowa and New Hampshire into a truly serious threat to Clinton’s nomination.

Sanders is simply no Barack Obama.

And, whatever chance he had was dramatically reduced by the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

From Patrick Healy in The New York Times – Bernie Sanders Falls Behind in a Race Centered on Security:

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — In his opening remarks at the Democratic presidential debate on Saturday, Senator Bernie Sanders railed against “establishment politics and establishment economics” and then the nation’s “rigged economy.” He moved on to the “corrupt” campaign finance system, then the “planetary crisis of climate change.” Only after that did he say he wanted to destroy the Islamic State.

It was a litany of priorities that made good sense when Mr. Sanders announced his presidential bid in April. But after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., he made fighting terrorism sound like an afterthought.

These are challenging times for Mr. Sanders as the chief opponent to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. His progressive political message, so popular with liberals for much of 2015, now seems lost in a fog of fear. Americans are more anxious about terrorism than income inequality. They want the government to target the Islamic State more than Wall Street executives and health insurers. All of this plays to Mrs. Clinton’s strengths — not only as a hawkish former secretary of state but also as a savvy politician who follows the public mood. After months of pivoting to the left on domestic issues to compete with Mr. Sanders for her party’s base, she is now talking about security and safety far more than Mr. Sanders — and solidifying her lead in opinion polls.

One could, of course, argue that, as a former secretary of state, Clinton’s fingerprints are all over the sorry situation the world is in. But, at time of great uncertainty, Clinton at least is no stranger to the world stage.

AP photo by Jim Cole
AP photo by Jim Cole

From a Jonathan Martin and Amy Chozick story in the Times, under the headline, In Democratic Debate, Hillary Clinton’s Focus Is on G.O.P.

Hillary Clinton largely looked past her Democratic rivals in Saturday night’s debate, instead repeatedly assailing the Republican field, led by Donald J. Trump. She called Mr. Trump a threat to the nation’s safety, saying he was fast “becoming ISIS’ best recruiter.”

Deflecting persistent attacks from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland over gun control, Wall Street and foreign military entanglements, she accused Mr. Trump of undermining the fight against terrorism.

Mrs. Clinton, the former secretary of state, sought to frame next year’s election as a choice between her clear-eyed approach to national security and the recklessness of Republicans who have demonized Muslims since the recent attacks on Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

And from Clinton, the most stinging rebuke of Trump – praising George W. Bush, by contrast, and leveling a new and specific charge that I’m sure will be much talked about beginning on this morning’s Sunday shows.

CLINTON: You know, I was a senator from New York after 9/11, and we spent countless hours trying to figure out how to protect the city and the state from perhaps additional attacks. One of the best things that was done, and George W. Bush did this and I give him credit, was to reach out to Muslim Americans and say, we’re in this together. You are not our adversary, you are our partner.

And we also need to make sure that the really discriminatory messages that Trump is sending around the world don’t fall on receptive ears. He is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists. So I want to explain why this is not in America’s interest to react with this kind of fear and respond to this sort of bigotry.

“No fact checker has been able to back up her claim on that,” Chuck Todd told Trump, who was on the phone, on Meet the Press this morning.

“Exactly correct,” Trump said. “I was going to say that nobody has been able to back that up … It’s just another Hilary lie. She lies like crazy. She just made this up in thin air.”

Perhaps she was making the point that ISIS could use videos of Trump video to recruit jihadists. But, if there is no evidence they actually are, then her statement may prove reminiscent of the elusive video that Trump said he was certain he saw of  “thousands and thousands of people” cheering in Jersey City, N.J., as the World Trade Center collapsed.

Clinton did succumb to one other Trumpian moment during the debate.

MUIR: Secretary Clinton, I did want to ask you, the last time you ran for president, Fortune Magazine put you on its cover with the headline Business Loves Hillary, pointing out your support for many CEOs in corporate America. I’m curious, eight years later, should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?

CLINTON: Everybody should.



Photo by Jim Cole
Photo by Jim Cole

Good line, though it did give Sanders an opening for a good line of his own:

So Hillary and I have a difference. The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary. They ain’t going to like me and Wall Street is going to like me even less.

But Clinton clearly has benefited the most by Trump’s rise – even if she did attend his wedding and even if some conspiratorial corners think that Trump’s candidacy is a Clinton plot.

First, Clinton, far more than Sanders, would be able to draw the support of those folks who are moderate in their politics and temperament, if Trump were the Republican nominee.

And second, Trump did Clinton the  service of contributing to the diminishment of Jeb Bush. If Jeb! were riding high, voter unhappiness about seeing a Bush-Clinton reprise might be much higher than it is.

On Saturday Night Live last night, a Republican debate parody ended with”Bush” telling “Trump” – “You’re never going to be president.”

To which “Trump” replies – “Yeah. None of us are, genius.”

Later in the show, Kate McKinnon, playing Hillary Clinton 2015,  is visited by Amy Poehler, as the Hillary Clinton she impersonated eight years ago, who warns her latter-day self against overconfidence.

“On Christmas Eve 2007 I was cocky too and then someone named Barack Obama stumbled out of a soup kitchen with a basketball and a cigarette and stole my life,” she says.

But when McKinnon’s Clinton informs Poehler’s Clinton that the Republican frontrunner is Donald Trump, the two join with each other in jumping for joy: “Oh my God. We’re going to be president!”


Author: Jonathan Tilove

Jonathan Tilove is the Statesman's chief political writer. He was a Washington correspondent for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 2008 to 2012. Before that he covered race and immigration issues for Newhouse News Service for 18 years.

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