Coming into the first Democratic presidential debate as a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I felt confident because I expected her to be well prepared and well versed on the issues. On the other hand, I feared she might be mischaracterized or attacked unfairly. Luckily she brought her A game. All five candidates on the stage performed admirably, albeit with a few awkward moments.
Oct.13, 2015 - Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. - From left, BERNIE SANDERS, HILLARY CLINTON, and MARTIN O'MALLEY on stage at the CNN moderated Democratic Presidential Debate. (Credit: Josh Haner/NYT/Pool via ZUMA Wire)
I had forgotten what it was like to watch a debate where I agreed on the issues with most of the candidates. After having barely digested the recent Republican debates, I found it refreshing to be cheering for Bernie and nodding along with O’Malley. It was hard to figure out what Chafee was trying to say and I got tired of Webb complaining about his time allotment, but I suspect so did most everybody else. Admittedly, it wasn’t as fun to heckle the candidates, but I got over that by drinking my share of progressive policy cool-aid.
Flanked on both sides by men significantly taller than her, Clinton could have come off as the girl trying too hard to play in the boys’ club, but instead, she looked much like a commander-in-chief surrounded by thoughtful advisors. I envisioned the five of them sitting at a White House table, sharing their ideas on each topic, O’Malley telling his stories, Chafee going off-topic, Bernie raving about why the issue was important, and Hilary listening, making an informed decision. It could happen.
Unfortunately, the debate questioning came mostly from areas where mainstream media has seen the most play. They covered a lot of territory, but Anderson Cooper seemed much more comfortable lobbing quick gotcha zingers at the candidates than he did asking substantive questions. It’s too bad, because real people have real questions, and I’m one of them.
Still, it was a good show. And I credit Bernie Sanders for much of that. Secretary Clinton responded to a question about her email by saying the same thing she’s been saying for months (no news here). “We need to be talking about what people are talking about,” she replied as she was interrupted by Anderson Cooper.
Sanders intervened: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!” Thank you Senator. While she didn’t need anyone to come to her rescue, Clinton used the opportunity to stay on message, focusing on economic empowerment and “raising incomes for hard-working Americans.”
I don’t usually pick winners in debates, but I checked most of the major news outlets and of those who declared a winner, the consensus so far has been Hillary Clinton. CNN’s Stephen Collinson reported after the debate, “Hillary Clinton delivered a poised, polished performance in the campaign's first Democratic presidential debate.” Still, I have to hand it to Sanders: he finished a strong second. And while Governor O’Malley would do a great job telling bedtime stories to kids or teaching high school, he might also make a good vice president, if that’s the job he’s really running for.
As much as the Twittersphere succeeds in sharing and re-sharing the best one-liners of the debates, this one had less of those. Instead it was a much more nuanced debate about challenges like gun control, Syria, racism, student debt, criminal justice reform, and immigration. Missing were big picture questions about the environment, the economy, gender equality or campaign finance reform. That’s too bad, but we mostly know where the candidates stand on these topics. After this debate, we know Clinton’s line: “I have a plan” for each one, and she means it.
When all of the candidates were asked to show how they would differ from President Obama or bring in an outside perspective, Hillary’s confidence shined. “Being the first woman president would be quite a change,” followed with “I can’t think of anything more of an outsider than being elected the first woman president.”
At first, I considered that remark a well-rehearsed sound bite, but then I realized how much it rings true. We may be accustomed to having a few women on the national stage now, but how long has it taken us to get here? And the women of the US Senate only recently gained access to the senators' swimming pool just because the male senators didn’t want to wear swimsuits. Seriously. Every trip I take to Washington, DC, it’s painfully clear how alive and well the boys’ club is there. She’s right.
Speaking of women, CNN’s Dana Bash got to ask the token ‘women’s issue’ question about paid family leave, over an hour after Secretary Clinton brought it up in her opening remarks. Hillary of course gave a well reasoned response based on her own experience as a working mother, and Bernie exuberantly replied, “We are the only major country that is an international embarrassment, that we do not provide… paid family and medical leave!” (I can’t quote him without adding an exclamation point because otherwise it doesn’t seem like an authentic representation.) At least someone was listening on the senate floor when his female colleagues explained this problem.
She could have left it there, but the champion of women’s rights that we know from her famous “women’s rights are human rights” 1995 speech was in the house. “They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and try to take down Planned Parenthood,” she jabbed at Republicans. Clinton looked directly in the camera, she spoke firmly, with authority, without hesitation. She took on the elephant in the room both literally and figuratively, and with ease.
I watched the debate closely to see how Secretary Clinton responded to questions, not just listening on substance, because at this point I’m pretty clear on her policies after seeing her in person numerous times and meeting her (albeit briefly). I’ve worked long enough with organizations dedicated to training women leaders in politics and media to know what to do and what not to do. She did it all right last night. She was strong, consistent, formidable, and (dare I say it) likable. Progressive media and speech coach, Christine Jahnke tweeted “Again @HillaryClinton outshines the competition - is it possible the punditry will acknowledge her star power?”
I’ve been working with political campaigns now for more than a decade and it’s no secret that at every step in every race, it’s harder for women. From subtle gender bias to overt sexism, it’s an uphill battle every day of every campaign. No candidate for any office is ever truly perfect, but we —and I mean we, because women have been trained to make the same harsh judgments on other women as men have — expect more from women. It happens with Carly Fiorina and it happens with Hillary Clinton. The first Democratic debate may have skirted over (no pun intended) the issues we care about, but there are more to come.
Here we are, with arguably the most experienced candidate we’ve had for president in our lifetimes and the best chance our children will have to see that glass ceiling shattered for many years to come. After this debate, we’re one step closer to making Hillary’s statement true: “finally fathers will be able to say to their daughters, ‘you too can grow up to be president.’”
Sarah Granger is an award-winning campaign tech innovator and author of The Digital Mystique. Her 2010 BlogHer post about Hillary Clinton and TechWomen is archived forever as part of the State Department email collection.
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