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The First Democratic Presidential Debate, simplified

By Julia Long

The first Democratic presidential debate in more than eight years aired on Tuesday night. This is the first time issues have been addressed in a specifically Democratic context by presidential candidates in a long time. For those who are unsure about who to support or what kinds of issues will be important in the coming election, an understanding of this first debate is essential. The ECHO has compiled candidate backgrounds and a comprehensive guide to Tuesday night’s event.

Who are the candidates?

Here are the candidates seeking the democratic nomination invited to the debate, in descending order of poll numbers.

  • Hillary Clinton- With the most name recognition and highest poll numbers, former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner. Some are wary of Clinton’s more moderate economic policies and skeptical of her ability to gain voters nationally, but Clinton’s strong focus on families and impressive record of public service make her a strong candidate. In Tuesday night’s debate Clinton affirmed her reputation as a master of debate. She spoke for more than 30 minutes and appeared decisive and trustworthy, while avoiding personal issues like the Benghazi scandal and her shifting views on the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • Bernie Sanders- The longtime Vermont senator has advocated Democratic socialist ideals throughout his entire career, and is a strong advocate for campaign finance reform, economic restructuring, and social justice. Sanders remains inconsistent on issues that have the potential to unite democrats, such as gun control and foreign policy. Sanders fared well in the debate, speaking for nearly as long as Clinton on pertinent issues. He may have seemed weaker, however, on gun control and foreign policy.
  • Martin O’Malley-  Though Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is third in the polls, he has still not caught fire as a top-tier candidate. A few years ago, O’Malley was regarded as a rising star in the party, focusing on gun control and environmental reform. During the debate O’Malley proved himself a worthy contender. Though he spoke significantly less than Sanders or Clinton, he emphasized his policy’s many strengths. O’Malley’s performance heightened his political capital and has the potential to garner increasing support for his campaign.
  • Jim Webb- With a naval career and stint as a Virginian senator, Jim Webb appeared to be the most conservative of the Democratic candidates. Focusing on a strong foreign policy and military emphasis, Webb has the potential to attract a sparsely seen demographic in the Democratic party—veterans and the military. However, his responses at the debate were less developed, and not as eloquent  as those of Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley.
  • Lincoln Chafee- Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s politics have remained the same over the course of his long career, despite the fact that he has campaigned as a Republican in past elections. His most striking quote of the night was “The party left me,” referencing his staunch political moderacy in the face of an ever-right-leaning Republican party. Towards the end of the debate Chafee seemed to have little to say, not speaking between the second and third breaks.

What are the highlights from the event?

The Democratic Presidential debate was more policy-focused and pertinent than previous Republican debates, running the gambit of hot-button issues. The candidates found common ground on the issue of paid maternity leave and other family and children-based issues, as well as disdain of the treatment of the Planned Parenthood in Congress. Better educational opportunities were supported all around, but the question of how to pay for those opportunities remained, solutions ranging from Wall Street speculation taxes to altering income tax policies.

Serious policy discussions aside, there were also some quotable moments. The most notable was Bernie Sanders’ address of the Benghazi scandal:

“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your d*** emails!” cried Sanders, in response to Clinton’s claim that the email issue has been over-inflated.

Another memorable quote was O’Malley’s direct mention of Donald Trump. O’Malley referred to Trump as “that barking carnival in the Republican Party.” O’Malley was the only candidate to directly isolate Trump, while other candidates referenced him in passing or indirectly.

What’s next?

After Tuesday night’s debate, the public now has a better sense of what issues are going to be important in the upcoming primaries and even the general election. Gun control will be a huge factor for the Democratic primaries, with O’Malley taking a strong stance against and Sanders taking a more neutral stance. Foreign policy issues, such as relations with Russia, China, and what to do about the Syrian crisis, will come to the forefront as Sanders and Chafee advocate for neutrality and peace, and Clinton, Webb, and even O’Malley suggesting more should be done to prevent the atrocities happening there.

Additionally, the debate can serve to  predict candidate’s’ future success in the primaries. Clinton and Sanders are definitely the most formidable candidates in the race as it stands, with the most fundraising and publicity so far. However, underestimating O’Malley would be a grave mistake as he garners attention in the aftermath of the debate. Much of the presidential campaign—especially the primaries—will be centered around public image and the ability to seem “presidential,” a quality that O’Malley seems to naturally possess due to his age and gender. While both Clinton and Sanders emphasized their knowledge of the issues and dominated the conversation on Tuesday night, O’Malley emphasized his past executive experience and successes as a governor, and how that would translate to the presidency.

While the Democratic debate may not be as dramatic and publicized as its Republican equivalent, it is sure to shake up the Democratic party as a whole and bring up questions that the party hasn’t been pressed to address in almost a decade.

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