Bernie Sanders can't win this way: Why his admirable debate performance still can't unseat Hillary Clinton

Everyone's favorite democratic socialist was in fine form last night. But there's one big problem

Published October 14, 2015 4:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/John Locher)
(AP/John Locher)

First thing's first: CNN actually did a decent job hosting Tuesday's Democratic debate! Who would have even thought it possible?

Anderson Cooper was, mostly, the model of a good debate moderator: focused on issues, well-prepared, quick to follow up, only occasionally lapsing into stupidity—as when he asked Bernie Sanders about his past as a conscientious objector, a topic relevant to exactly nobody—and generally keeping things moving.

Granted, Cooper had a vastly different situation to contend with than his predecessors who dealt with the Republicans. There were only five candidates onstage, and none of them were eager to go to war with each other. All that was left to do was talk about actual policy. In fact, the moment that drew the biggest round of applause from the Las Vegas audience was when Sanders growled that he was bored with all the mishegoss around Hillary Clinton's emails. Refusing to attack Hillary? The crowd ate it up.

And what about Hillary? All eyes had been trained on her—would she crumble under the weight of the email scandal? Would she tremble as Bernie barked his applause lines? Of course not. The debate provided her with perhaps the most sustained platform she has had so far to show off her policy chops, remind everyone that she is a fearsomely polished debater and bask in the warmth of a crowd that was truly on her side. There was nothing especially new about anything she said—time and again, she took a more cautious, more hawkish approach to the issues thrown at her—but she made no major errors and even landed a few surprising and effective blows, as when she took Sanders to task for his record on gun control. Her biggest potential pitfalls—like her disastrous foreign policy record, her close ties to Wall Street and those nagging emails—were mopped up far more easily than they might have been. In one of her smarter lines, she defended her vote to invade Iraq by noting that President Obama had asked her to serve in his cabinet—an answer that managed to both shamelessly evade the question about her judgment and win over the debate audience all at the same time.

Sanders has been one of Clinton's top headaches, but his resolute unwillingness to go after her too much meant that he didn't pose a real challenge for her during the debate. Instead, he stuck to his core themes, belting his messages about inequality and bankers out like Ethel Merman trying to hit the back of the balcony. Bernie Sanders knows how to work a crowd of liberals, so this strategy worked. It's tough to see how that will change the dynamic of the race, though. If Sanders is serious about winning the nomination, there's only one way to do that, and that's through Hillary Clinton. As she showed, she won't be shy about taking him down if she has to.

As for the other three people in the race... well, they were also present. Martin O'Malley made an intermittently energetic appeal to be the alternative Bernie Sanders. It was an appeal that mostly fell flat. Jim Webb spent the majority of his time either whining about how he wasn't being allowed to speak more or giving what sure sounded like sentences but didn't quite seem to end up as sentences. And Lincoln Chafee gave what is likely to go down in history as one of the worst debate answers of all time when he explained his vote for the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act by saying that he had just gotten to the Senate, didn't know what was going on, and, oh, his father had just died. Nice knowing ya, Linc!

One last thing: CNN desperately needs to rethink how it uses its journalists in these debates. Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Juan Carlos Lopez were quite literally tokenized, pressed into service only when a topic relevant to their particular demographic came up. Under the circumstances, it would have been better not to have them there at all. Or maybe—gasp!—CNN could have someone who is not a white man lead a debate for once?

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

MORE FROM Jack Mirkinson