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The Democratic Debate Was Substantive, Respectful, and the Harbinger of a Long Primary

Bernie Sanders proved he'll be a tough competitor in Iowa and New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton showed she's up to the challenge.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

By contrast with Tuesday night’s rancorous Republican primary debate, the three remaining Democratic candidates were able to argue with one another for two hours on Sunday without questioning anyone’s citizenship, threatening to bomb countries, or letting Donald Trump almost entirely off the hook.

But one of the most fundamental political differences between the parties at the moment is that Republican officials don’t want their frontrunner to win their presidential nomination, and Democrats do. And in that sense, Sunday’s Democratic debate was almost as dire for professional Democrats as Tuesday’s was for Republicans.

The Democratic Party establishment’s pro-Hillary Clinton bias is partially rooted in a desire to wrap up the primary quickly, before it turns into a bruising, months-long slugfest like it did in 2008. To that end, it’s crucial that she win one, if not both, of the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

The problem for party elites is that Bernie Sanders is closing in on Clinton in Iowa polls, and leads her in New Hampshire. For them, it wasn’t just imperative for Clinton to perform well on stage Sunday, but also for Sanders to falter—or at least fall back from attacking Clinton the way Republican candidates retreated on Thursday from the challenge of taking on Trump.

They had no such luck. For the first time this debate season, Sanders attacked Clinton without fear or favor. Of her attacks on his gun-regulation record, he said (in a very contestable statement), “I think Secretary Clinton knows that what she says is very disingenuous.” He boasted unapologetically about his climbing poll numbers, and he called her attacks on his health-care plan “nonsense,” and “Republican attacks.”

Sanders, in other words, finally debated like a candidate who thinks he stands a good chance of winningTo the extent that the Democratic National Committee and most high-ranking elected Democrats want Clinton to be the party’s nominee, the good news is that Clinton, as she generally does in debates, performed impressively, too. 

But over the past week, she and her campaign engaged in an odd, tendentious, and tin-eared series of political attacks on Sanders over his support for single-payer health care—an idea that’s extremely popular among Democratic primary voters. Rather than limit her criticism of Sanders’s position to questions of political feasibility, the Clinton campaign articulated the strange view that the country should forego a fight over single-payer health care because single-payer health care is bad in the abstract

On Sunday she corrected the error, in large part by tapping into something obvious but important: Many Democrats like President Obama, they’re proud of Obamacare, and they aren’t comfortable with the idea that it needs to be fundamentally overhauled rather than built upon. Rather than dismiss single-payer disingenuously as a regressive alternative to Obamacare, Clinton expressed the perfectly defensible view that corralling Democrats into a new fight, premised on the idea that Obamacare isn’t worth improving, is ceding ground unnecessarily in order to shoot for the political moon.

Generally speaking, Clinton avoided below-the-belt attacks on Sanders, though she played footsie with one when she defended the toughness of her plan to further regulate Wall Street by intimating that Sanders is a pawn of the financial industry. 

For liberals who are excited by the prospect of forging a more progressive but well-moored party consensus, the debate was an unalloyed victory. But for Democrats who would sacrifice a protracted debate to begin the work of reuniting the party early, Sunday night was a decidedly more mixed affair. They saw that Bernie Sanders really is a formidable opponent who will be hard to fend off in Iowa and New Hampshire. They also saw that Hillary Clinton is a candidate who could pull it off.