The Democratic debate wasn’t entertaining. Rather, real issues were discussed and candidates were civil. In short, it was less like watching a melee, and more like actually watching a debate.
The event drew 15.3 million viewers, a record-breaking number for a Democratic debate. Although this pales in comparison to the 25 million tuned into the first Republican showdown, it’s hard to compete with the “highest-rated new ‘show’ of the fall TV season.” Therein lies the essential difference: the Republican debates are a performance—with Donald Trump as the drama queen—while the Democratic debate was a serious discussion of important concerns. If this indicates anything, it’s that the Democrats are better situated to take on the multitude of critical issues our nation faces.
Because they treated these matters with rigor and deliberation, it would be easy to exalt the five Democratic candidates, especially over some of the more farcical Republican contenders. But we have to remember that no one has won yet (no, not even Hillary). The election is still over a year away and there is a lot of campaigning left. Yes, the Republicans are putting on a show, but the Democrats are enacting their own kind of political performance, taking on some familiar roles. A quick look at solely their opening remarks is revelatory.
Lincoln Chafee: The Ethical Candidate
Chafee is vanilla; in his opening remarks, he boasted a lack of scandals during his “30 years of public service” as mayor, senator, and governor. He claims, “I’ve always been honest…I’ve shown good judgment. I have high ethical standards.” Apparently those ethical standards don’t necessary include knowing what you’re voting for, except, of course, if you’d “just arrived in Senate” and your dad had just died.
Jim Webb: The Military Man
Webb opens the way a military man would: identifying the enemy (money in politics, primarily). The former Virginia senator emphasized his time in Vietnam as a Marine his tenure as Assistant Secretary of Defense and Secretary of the Navy, and his authorship of the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill. I wonder if foreign policy would matter to him.
Martin O’Malley: The Family Man
O’Malley begins by introducing Americans to his family: his wife, two daughters, and two sons. And, “like you, there is nothing [he] wouldn’t do to give [his family] healthier and better lives.” The former mayor of Baltimore stressed his experience, and further emphasized the policies he promoted: marriage equality, the DREAM Act, and the like. Even with issues that have little to do directly with family, like climate change, he works it in: “…the question in this election is whether you and I still have the ability to give our kids a better future. I believe we do, that is why I’m running for president.” O’Malley is the quintessential family man, here to protect all his American children.
Bernie Sanders: The Revolutionary
In case you haven’t heard, Bernie Sanders is a socialist. And he owns it. He jumps right in, no hesitation, addressing the “series of unprecedented crises” facing our nation. This sense of urgency implicates the viewer: if we don’t do something revolutionary (and soon!), our country is going to be run not by a president, but by millionaire and billionaire puppet-masters. He takes equally strong stances on non-economic issues, like climate change and institutional racism, but there is no overcoming the elephant (or donkey) in the room: he is a socialist. As such, he calls for the mobilization of the people to take back our country from the wealthy. You say you want a revolution, well, you know, Bernie wants to change the world (and reduce income inequality).
Hillary Clinton: The Favorite
If we’re being honest, we all know it’s Hillary’s time, and she knows it too. She introduces herself not only as a former First Lady, senator from New York, and Secretary of State, but also as a granddaughter and grandmother. She has established views, and lays them out in her opening remarks. She evokes Lincoln—“But for me, this is about bringing our country together again. And I will do everything I can to heal the divides.”—and in doing so, reassures us that she will do what is best for our country. Her composure and thoughtful answers throughout the debate are indicative of her experience. She doesn’t need to tell us that she knows what she’s doing. We know already.
Right now, these five are focused on convincing us, the American people, that they are the best. In order to do this, each has carefully constructed a narrative to make them seem relatable to their potential supporters. Connecting with a politician is hard, but a mother is relatable. Despite this, it’s crucial to remember that, at the end of the day, they’re all politicians. It’s easy to lose sight of the issues and get caught in the drama, but if we think critically, we can discern and distill the messages that matter: their platforms, their truths. This doesn’t just mean Bernie and Hillary. Despite the slim chance that Chafee, Webb, or O’Malley is elected, we should be just as attentive to what they have to say. One doesn’t have to support a candidate to agree with him/her, and one doesn’t have to fully agree with a candidate in order to support him/her. The essential practice is listening.
This is especially critical for college students. We get a bad rap for being apathetic, self-centered and ignorant (or indifferent) when it comes to politics. Now, we have always known that this is not entirely true. It looks like the Democratic candidates have seen the light as well. Certain issues, like “student debt and college affordability…got more attention during the first Democratic primary debate Tuesday night than they have in any 2016 primary debate so far.” While these two issues directly impact our lives, candidates also focused on topics like climate change, gun control, Wall Street regulation, ISIS and legalization of marijuana—all salient issues, especially for the Millennials.
It’s clear that the candidates care about us and our opinions, and it’s only fair to reciprocate. They’re giving us a platform and a voice, and it’s our responsibility to make use of it.