Perhaps it was just a matter of time that some of the ugliness, the exaggerations, and hyperbole that have characterized the social media debate over Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders would bubble up into the debates themselves. But things were not helped in Wednesday night's Washington Post/Univision debate, hosted by CNN. True, no one got into a shouting match of the sort that has characterized the GOP debates as of late — and thankfully, no one compared penis size, though that was a gimme considering the gender make-up of the contest — but both candidates got testy and, even worse, the whole thing exaggerated differences between them that are actually pretty minor.
To be fair to both of them, a lot of this isn't the candidates' faults. The moderators were clearly more interested in causing fireworks than digging into actual questions about policy and leadership skills. Things are, of course, going to be exacerbated by the fact that the primary is more of a contest than people thought it would be, and that fact is getting the blood up in both Clinton and Sanders. The result is personalized attacks, distortions, and, inevitably, tedious quibbling over minor points that probably don't matter that much to voters in the long run.
Clinton, at times, got frustrated under hostile questioning, which gives critics ammunition to push the line that she's dodgy. Sanders starting looking a bit like an empty suit: Full of big rhetoric, but short on an understanding of the complexities of the job he's trying to get.
Under the circumstances, however, Clinton probably did a better job than Sanders. Under a bunch of hostile but facile questioning, the best you can hope for is that you can effectively defend yourself against some of the worst things your critics say about you. Clinton did a pretty decent job of that, giving solid answers to dumb questions about faux scandals and stupid media narratives that try to justify sexism. Sanders, however, gave into his worst urge to pander, reinforcing suspicions that his passion is masking a lack of depth in his thinking.
Clinton was put on the defense a lot more than Sanders. For instance, she got the usual "likeability" question that is standard for female candidates and not for men, framed this time as why people don't "consider you honest and trustworthy."
Clinton's answer was actually pretty clever, subtly addressing the sexism underlying the endless obsession with whether people like her. "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama," she said, before talking about how she makes up for this supposed deficit by working hard.
It's a classic female maneuver: Diss yourself a little so people don't think you're proud, so they can actually calm their antagonism towards the ambitious woman enough to listen to what she's saying.
Other attempts to put her on the ropes by indulging right-wing talking points about emails and Benghazi also fell flat. Clinton got testy at times, but her explanations are solid and hard to argue with. (Which is probably one reason Sanders doesn't try.) The worst was when Clinton was clearly shaken by questions about deportations. All her efforts to turn the subject to legislative solutions were redirected to discussion about whether the president can and should stop enforcing deportation laws, and she got visibly freaked out. But overall, she held up well and showed that she's not going to be as easy to bait in a general election as some fear she will be.
The most aggressive questioning Sanders got was about his 80s-era support of Sandinistas and Fidel Castro. He went about getting a gotcha question a very different way than Clinton: Aggressively changing the subject and hoping no one notices.
"What that was about was saying that the United States was wrong to try to invade Cuba, that the United States was wrong trying to support people to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, that the United States was wrong trying to overthrow in 1954, the government -- democratically elected government of Guatemala," he said.
It was a big applause line — yeah, anti-interventionism! — but the problem is that it simply wasn't true. It's true that he opposed the interventionism of the Reagan administration, which is a big plus for him, but his insinuation that it was limited to that is easily disproved. As Michael Moynihan laid out in the Daily Beast, Sanders' enthusiasm for the Sandinistas far outstripped a simple opposition to Contras or the Reagan administration. He clearly idealized them, minimizing their violence towards indigenous people and making excuses for their censorship of the press.
Most people don't really care about something so far past, but this whole exchange showed a real weakness in the Sanders campaign, should he win the nomination. Sanders has long defended his identification as a "socialist" by saying he's not that kind of socialist, and instead is a "democratic socialist". But his lengthy and imminently quotable history of praise for Castro and even some of the more oppressive parts of the Sandinista government could easily be used by Republicans to paint him as that kind of socialist.
And that was what María Elena Salinas was getting at when she said, "So please explain what is the difference between the socialism that you profess and the socialism in Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela."
But instead of answering the question, Sanders pivoted to broad but empty-sounding rhetoric about interventionism. It wasn't a big deal during a primary debate, where the audience is a bunch of liberals who either already get it or don't really care. But the general election is coming.
The "socialism" thing has lingered in the background as Republicans don't attack Sanders in hopes he'll be nominated and Clinton won't attack him for fear of sounding right wing. But in the general election, all those restraints will disappear and he will be having to answer more aggressive questions about it. The fact that he doesn't have a good answer is going to be a problem.
Overall, the debate was a bummer. It would be nice if moderators were more focused on substantive questions than trying to trip up the candidates, often to no real purpose. But insofar as it demonstrated how well they hold up under such attempts to trip them up, it suggested Clinton's simply better at it. She got a lot more questions in that vein and never really stumbled. Sanders got only one such question and ended up proving some of the worst concerns about his readiness for prime time.