Some had a better night than others.

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Democrats Compete for Our Attention in Debate, and Fail

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The latest Democratic presidential debate did not go as we expected a few days ago. The terrorist attacks in Paris, which unfolded only about 24 hours before candidates took the stage, changed the whole dynamic. They talked about terrorism. And then everything else they said, all the meat-and-potatoes domestic policy talk that we were waiting for, seemed almost petty in comparison.

So how did the candidates handle the terrorism questions? They were fine, but they were also not in a position to say much. At this point the honest answer to “How does Paris change things?” should probably be “too early to tell” -- not what any debate coach would suggest.

Perhaps that’s why none of the three remaining candidates were particularly sharp by their own standards this time around. No big loss there. It's ever more obvious that Hillary Clinton has had the nomination wrapped up for months. Still, debates can be useful exercises in representation even if they have nothing to do with who will win. 

Clinton didn’t hurt herself, either in the upcoming primaries and caucuses or in the general election, but she may have ended her recent media honeymoon. That’s not to say she did anything wrong; it’s just that after a summer of the press beating on her over e-mails and the Clinton Foundation (remember that?) she took advantage of lowered expectations in the first debate and in her testimony to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. That dynamic was tapped out before this debate. And while she’s still very good at these things, she didn’t quite nail many of the questions.

For example, in one sequence she was pressed to defend her support for a $12 minimum wage, when her opponents both support $15. She gave a perfectly adequate answer, leaning on the support of a leading labor economist to argue the lower figure was better. But she might have used the opportunity to argue that Democrats should take seriously the views of experts, unlike Republicans on climate, even if those experts don’t always support Democrats' dreams.

Nevertheless, Clinton was certainly well above the “acceptable” level. She was, as usual, well-prepped and demonstrated thorough knowledge of policy. She practiced Frontrunner 101 a few times, emphasizing how much all three Democrats agreed and how far off the mark all the Republican candidates are (in her view, certainly shared by all Democrats watching). She once again showed her basic debate skills, whether it was pivoting to what she wanted to talk about or her trick of having her voice rise at the end of an answer (without, I should say, sounding as if it’s a gimmick).

Martin O’Malley had a couple of good moments, especially in taking a shot at Donald Trump (earning a rapid response and therefore earn a little attention for a candidate starved for it). But he still has a nasty case of governoritis, constantly giving dull answers about “what I did in my state” rather than talking about what he would do in the White House.

And Bernie Sanders hasn’t expanded his range at all. Democrats love hearing him talk about greed and fraud and Wall Street, but he’s not going to convince a majority of them to vote for him on that alone, and to me at least it’s not at all clear he’ll even move the party in his direction on his core issues. It’s only been two debates, and he’s already in danger of sounding stale.

But again, maybe it was just a challenge on this night to bring our attention to U.S. issues, when viewers are haunted by the massacre in Paris.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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