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Who Won The Democratic Presidential Debate: Commentary Roundup

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Hillary. So say the majority of news reporters and commentators from the center, left and right.

The mainstream press gives Hillary the win with few reservations. In the New York Times, Michael Barbaro and Amy Chozick write that Clinton turned “a showdown that had been expected to scrutinize her character into a forceful critique of [Sanders’] record.”

The Times points to two knock-out punches the former Secretary of State delivered to the senator from Vermont. After he proclaimed Denmark as a model the U.S. should follow on health care, she came back with this: “But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America.”

On gun control, Clinton criticized Sanders’ congressional record. After he hemmed and hawed about why he voted against a bill that would have stripped gun makers of immunity from federal prosecution, she parried, “It wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward.”

Some of Clinton’s strongest moments came when she answered questions with a straightforward few words. Is Sanders tough enough on guns, asked moderator Anderson Cooper. “No, not at all,” she shot back. “It was a dominant performance that showcased Mrs. Clinton’s political arsenal: a long record of appearances in presidential debates, intense and diligent preparation, and a nimbleness and humor largely lacking in her male counterparts,” says the Times. When Cooper noted that all the candidates barely made it back to the stage following a bathroom break, Clinton quipped, “You know, it does take me a little longer.”

Writing on the Times’ opinion page, Frank Bruni gives high praise for Clinton’s performance. In a piece headlined “Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Debate Magic,” he extols her ability to “thread the needle” on frayed political issues. After Cooper challenged her for changing her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, he asked her point blank whether she was a progressive or a moderate. “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she replied. “I know how to find common ground and I know how to stand my ground.” She repeated those lines later in the debate. She also repeated herself three times when she stated the obvious fact that she’d be the first female president. But Bruni praises her nonetheless. “She was mum when silence served her best and fiery when that was the right call,” he writes.

The Washington Post doesn’t award the victory quite as forcefully to Clinton. In its lead report on the debate, Dan Balz and Anne Gearan focus on how Clinton and Sanders dominated the stage, leaving their three challengers, former Virginia senator Jim Webb, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island governor (and former Republican) Lincoln Chafee, in the dust. But the Post notes that Hillary had some of the best lines, setting herself up to compete most effectively with a Republican challenger next year. She even got some help from Sanders when Cooper pressed Hillary on her use of a private email server when she was Secretary of state, then asking Sanders where he stood on the controversy. Noting that his answer probably wasn’t politically expedient, Sanders responded, “I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” With a big smile, Clinton reached over and shook Sanders’ hand as the audience applauded. CNN’s camera caught Jesse Jackson giving Bernie a standing ovation.

In a Post opinion piece, Karen Tumulty pronounces Clinton “self-assured,” a realist who would work within the political system to effect change, rather than trying to stage a revolution from the fringes, as Sanders has pledged to do.

The Wall Street Journal’s main news story describes Clinton’s strong performance but doesn’t award her the victory, noting instead that she and Sanders dominated the debate stage. But a Journal editorial pronounces her the winner. “The four men on stage showed they lack the ability and will to take her on,” it says. Not surprisingly, the Journal editorial page doesn’t like Hillary, citing her “penchant for ethical corner-cutting and deceit,” but it proclaims that the debate solidified her “coronation” as the Democratic nominee.

The rest of the right wing press agrees with the Journal editorial page, with some giving her what seems like an endorsement. Writing for RedState, Leon H. Wolf criticizes Hillary’s challengers. “Lincoln Chafee’s presence on stage was both pointless and creepy,” he writes. (Observers agree that Chafee had the worst moment of the debate when he bafflingly admitted that he didn’t know what he was doing when he voted to eradicate Glass-Steagall because his father had just died and he was new to the Senate: “It was my very first vote.”) Though Jim Webb “made occasional substantive sense,” he complained too much about not getting enough time. O’Malley seemed to be there just because he was “licking Hillary’s boots.” Compared to Sanders, Hillary was “more likeable and personable than everyone’s favorite crazy socialist uncle.”

The National Review has a headline saying that Clinton “pulls knife on Sanders over gun control.” The Weekly Standard says that Sanders lost by endlessly repeating himself on the evils of billionaires and Wall Street. “He struck a single, unpleasing, note,” writes Geoffrey Norman. Another piece in the National Review hates Hillary and likes the right-leaning Jim Webb (“he’s a warrior and a scholar”) but says she was the clear debate winner, making it inevitable that she will get the Democratic nomination. “Hillary and the Four Dwarfs,” reads David French’s headline.

The liberal press also praises Hillary’s debate performance. Mostly. The Nation isn’t entirely sure if it likes all of Hillary’s policy positions but it allow that she’s an expert debater.

Writing for Slate, Josh Voorhees gushes about Hillary’s top-notch performance, praising her for parrying challenges on her Iraq war vote, her flip flop on trade and her email mess. “She was confident early and poised throughout,” he writes. He also compliments her attacks on Sanders. He doesn’t hate Sanders’ performance but says the senator never recovered from his flailing statements about gun control.

On Salon, Amanda Marcotte says Hillary was the clear winner. Clinton was especially strong when she weighed in on feminist issues like family leave and the Republicans’ attack on abortion rights and Planned Parenthood. “Hillary Clinton came across as the candidate who was most plugged into how modern Democratic voters think about the issues,” writes Marcotte, who also praises Sanders for keeping the focus of the debate on substantive issues and for pushing Hillary to the left.

There are a couple of dissenters from the Hillary-the-winner script.

The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board proclaims Sanders the winner for his “electrifying” performance, saying he connected with the audience because of his dogged authenticity. “The notion of anyone asking if he would change positions to win votes is preposterous,” says the Tribune.

Two articles on the Huffington Post proclaim Sanders the winner. Technology analyst Brian Hanley has a short piece saying that Sanders’ email comment stole the night.

Columnist H.A. Goodman likes that moment and many other points scored by Sanders, praising him for sticking to his views on his two main issues, wealth inequality and climate change. Unlike other commentators who see Sanders as shaky on foreign policy, Goodman compliments the Vermont senator for saying he doesn’t want the U.S. military to get into a “quagmire” in Syria. “Nobody came close to Bernie Sanders on the issues of wealth inequality, climate change, perpetual-wars, and the impact of these challenges upon our nation,” writes Goodman, who is most persuasive when he describes a number of online snap polls taken directly after the debate. A CNN Facebook poll showed Sanders winning by a stunning 80% at one point in the evening, while a Time poll had Sanders at 64%. An MSNBC poll gave Sanders 84% and a Slate poll 75% at various points.

In a related piece, Forbes contributor Dan Diamond points out that Sanders won the Twitter war, gaining more than 35,000 followers as the debate progressed, as opposed to Hillary’s 23,000.

Given Sanders’ populist backing and the many young social media-savvy voters who favor his campaign, it may not be surprising that he did so well on social media the night of the debate. Is HuffPo’s Goodman right that we should be paying attention to online polls? How important are the opinions of the pundit class?

One question raised by this debate that I find tough to answer: There are another five Democratic debates scheduled through March 9. Will Americans watch? I want to hear the candidates on a long list of policy issues. To name a few: the continuing U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. role in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the migrant crisis, immigration, racial injustice, mass incarceration including the unconscionable imprisonment of the seriously mentally ill. Sanders rails against the billionaire and millionaire classes but I’d like to know exactly how he plans to work with this congress to end wealth inequality. What is Hillary’s agenda on women’s rights and human rights around the globe, aside from sweeping promises?

Though most of the commentary on this debate handed the victory to Clinton, to me Hillary and Bernie don’t sound that far apart. Jim Webb, with his support for the military, defense of gun rights and advocacy for budget cuts, seems like the one with a different policy agenda but it’s difficult to fathom how he or the other two challengers will keep their campaigns running for much longer, and at least CNN didn’t seem all that interested in bringing Webb into the debate.

It’s tough to imagine that as the campaigns wear on, Hillary and Bernie will differ enough from one another to sustain all of those hours of podium talk. To me, he seems unelectable and she needs him to help mobilize the Democratic base to get out and vote. I predict he’ll eventually abandon his candidacy and throw his weight behind her. As Sanders has pointed out, 63% of voting-eligible Americans stayed home during the last election, a shameful figure (the precise number is 64% according to Politifact). Let’s hope that the substantive discussion continues but I fear that few people will keep on tuning in after last night’s exhausting two-and-a-half-hour show.

This article was written by Susan Adams from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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