Who won? Grades for the Democratic debaters (and two who weren’t there)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, speak during the CNN Democratic presidential debate Tuesday. AP

Why is it again that Hillary Clinton and Democratic Party leadership seemed iffy about debates?

Tuesday’s Democratic faceoff in Las Vegas was a perfect vehicle for the Democratic frontrunner. She got to do something she’s very comfortable with – debating – against four guys who were basically the Washington Generals in suits. It was a rout. It was not surprising.

Still, we have grades to give out – including to a couple of people who weren’t on stage Tuesday:

Hillary Clinton - Grade: A-minus

Of course she won. She has long been a fine debater, and she shared the stage with four candidates who had significantly less debating experience. It showed.

Clinton was fluid on foreign and domestic policy. She managed not to get nudged too far off the ideological center, as happens to frontrunners in primary debates. She poked deftly at the only candidate she cared about, Bernie Sanders, while getting a pass from Sanders (and thus, everyone) on the only issue that really fretted her – emails.

There were a couple of late stumbles. Her head-scratcher on the Keystone pipeline – “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone” – was reminiscent of John Kerry’s “I was for the Iraq war before I was against it.” Also, Clinton will surely have to explain soon that when she said “Republicans” were among her favorite enemies, she wasn’t talking about all Republicans. (You can bet at least some Republicans are working on those talking points right now.)

Overall, it was a night that calmed the donors, and it was a reminder that there’s only one thing that can derail a Clinton nomination – the FBI.

You thought we were going to say Joe Biden?

Joe Biden - Grade: D

If Biden got a glimpse of the debate last night, he was reminded exactly how tall of a hill he’d have to climb should he enter the race. Clinton looked every bit the Democratic nominee on stage, even picking smart spots to contrast herself with Republicans. Democrats (and probably some Republicans) wished Biden had joined her there to make things more competitive, or to sharpen Clinton’s game, or to dent her more than the others were capable of doing. Biden wasn’t, and by the end of the night there was a sense that everyone is just moving on from Joe.

Bernie Sanders - Grade: B-minus

Oh, that voice. It reminds The Ballot of holiday dinners back home in New England – or at least after dinner, when the conversations turned to politics and got loud.

For better or worse, the Vermont senator was true to himself. He dispensed with debate niceties, using his introduction speech to go from zero to 60 straight into his platform. He also had the line of the night, at least for Hillary Clinton supporters, when he said Americans didn’t care about her “damn emails.”

That was true Sanders, too. He’s an issues candidate. He wants to talk about climate change. He wants to talk about Wall Street. He wants to talk about the billionaires vs. the rest of us. Every primary has this candidate – the one who speaks to the base, sometimes angrily, sometimes too angrily.

That candidate, however, doesn’t become president. On Tuesday, Bernie Sanders showed why he was good for his party’s soul. But he was a little too bombastic, a little too weak on foreign policy, a little too left to be a considered a legitimate national candidate.

Jim Webb – Grade: D-minus

Debate rule No. 1: Never complain about not getting as much time as the others on stage.

Debate rule No. 2: Whatever you do, don’t complain about it a half-dozen times.

Lincoln Chafee and Martin O’Malley - Grade: D

Simply, non-factors.

Donald Trump – Grade: C

You missed him, maybe just a little. Twitter sure did. Trump, not surprisingly, was trending Tuesday as if he were among the debaters. But the Democratic debate drew an important contrast with the Republican frontrunner. The Democrats were substantive. They debated issues and policy (agree with them or not). They were ... serious.

Trump, taking shots from the Twitterverse, was Trump.

Peter St. Onge

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