Winners and Losers from the 7th Democratic Presidential Debate


Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off in the seventh Democratic presidential debate on Sunday night in Flint, Michigan. The city’s well-publicized water problems framed a largely (although not entirely) polite conversation — a marked contrast to the battle royales on the Republican side of late.

– Hillary Clinton: The former Secretary of State came ready to fight on Sunday night. She kept her hit on Sanders’s opposition to the auto bailout well hidden in the run-up to the debate in order to get maximum impact when she dropped it on his head. Ditto her attack on him being the long Democrat to vote against the Export-Import bank. She is still not great when it comes to answering questions she doesn’t want to answer. Her I’ll-release-my-Wall-Street-speeches-when-everyone-else-does answer to a question on her high-paid speaking gigs was, still, not very good. And, she remains overly cautious as a candidate; when pressed whether people at the Environmental Protection Agency should lose their jobs over what happened in Flint, Clinton was unwilling to say they should — a swing and a miss at a hanging curveball. Still, overall, this was a very solid showing by Clinton. On guns, on failing schools and on Flint, she was confident and effective.

– President Barack Obama: It seemed as though no matter what Clinton was asked about in the debate, her answer wound back to a defense of the current occupant of the White House. Clinton even used Obama as a shield against Sanders as he bashed her on accepting money from Wall Street. Why? Because Clinton knows that among Democratic base voters — particularly African Americans — Obama remains hugely popular and, therefore, aligning yourself with him is a stone-cold winner.

– The Export-Import Bank: A 10-minute discussion about an obscure bank almost no one has ever heard of? I take that as a win for Ex-Im. Also, the Export-Import Bank is now the second most famous bank in the world — right behind the Iron Bank of Braavos.

– CNN: I will admit I very skeptical when the Cable News Network said this debate would start at 8 pm Eastern time. But, good on you CNN! At 7:56 pm the candidates were being introduced! And there wasn’t even that weird commercial break two seconds into the debate! I also liked the format CNN chose for this debate; lots and lots of good audience questions with (generally) effective follow ups by the moderators. (The Don Lemon repetition of the “Avenue Q” question was, um, less good. Ditto the “who do you pray for” question.)

– Bernie Sanders: The Vermont Senator had effectively walked a fine line in the previous six debates when it came to attacking Clinton without coming across as either bullying or condescending. He tripped and fell while trying to execute that delicate dance on Sunday night. Sanders’s “excuse me, I’m talking” rebuttal to Clinton hinted at the fact that he was losing his temper with her. His “can I finish please” retort ensured that his tone and his approach to someone trying to become the first female presidential nominee in either party would be the story of the night.

Put aside the fact that Sanders misstepped on tone, he also did nothing to change the underlying dynamics of the race. If you think Wall Street is the problem for much of what ails the country, you were for Sanders before this debate and certainly for him after it too. But, as we know from the first 40 percent or so of states that have voted, there aren’t enough of those people to make him the nominee. Sanders didn’t knock Clinton off her game in any meaningful way, making the debate a loss for him. (Sidebar: His answer about white people not knowing what it is like to live in a ghetto or be poor would have been a massive gaffe if he was not as far behind in the delegate chase as he is.)

– Foreign policy: There were a total of zero minutes dedicated to questions beyond America’s borders in the debate. I get that with the Flint setting this was going to be a largely domestic policy-focused affair. But, NO foreign policy questions? A little odd.

– The 1990s: Look, it was an awkward time for all of us. Much of the debate’s middle section featured Sanders trying to hit Clinton for various things — the crime bill, welfare reform, NAFTA — that happened in the 1990s. Clinton effectively parried them, pointing out that the 2016 election will be about the future, not the past.

The Washington Post · Chris Cillizza