It seems fairly clear that the Democratic presidential primary debate schedule was deliberately designed to ensure that as few people as possible tuned in: After the first debate, the next two events were set on Saturdays—including one the Saturday before Christmas—and the one after that set for the Sunday before the Martin Luther King holiday.
And in a way, it makes sense: Why would Democrats want more viewers? Even though Sen. Bernie Sanders is performing notably better than many expected, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton remains the prohibitive favorite to win the Democratic party nomination. Because she is already so well known and well established with the general public, debates have little upside and large potential downside: She's unlikely to say anything to help her chances all that much, and, given the base-pleasing incentives of the primaries, more likely to say something that would come back to hurt her in a general election. The Democratic party scheduled presidential debates so that they could say they had debates—not to actually have a contest.
And so it was hardly surprising that tonight's showdown between Clinton, Sanders, and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley largely played out like the last two minutes of a football game in which one team is ahead by three touchdowns.
In almost every exchange, Clinton played it as safe as possible, while Sanders and O'Malley pushed harder, hoping for big scores. Sanders was more successful, and there were a few moments in which it felt like he briefly knocked Hillary off her balance.
The opening segment on national security, forefronted after last night's terrorist attacks in Paris (to the loud objection of the Sanders campaign), suggested the difficulties the debates present for Clinton: She's more hawkish than the Democratic base, and so struggled to avoid saying much at all. At one point, she weirdly seemed to suggest that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in 2001 would cover any possible step an administration might want to take against ISIS, while also indicating that she believed it should be updated and passed again to cover additional actions. Clinton's difficulty on the subject tonight may be a preview of things to come.
Overall, however, Clinton's commanding lead, and the rigorous safety of her answers made it feel less like a debate and more like an interview with Clinton in which Sanders and O'Malley were also present.
And yet, thanks in part to the big swings taken by O'Malley and (especially) Sanders, as well as strong questioning and pointed follow ups from moderator John Dickerson, some differences between the candidates emerged—especially on domestic policy issues like health care, Wall Street, and the minimum wage.
Sanders defended his call for a $15 and hour federal minimum wage in response to a question noting that former Obama administration economic adviser Alan Krueger, whose research on the minimum wage has been a key influence on calls to raise it, warned of the potential for "severe" consequences with a $15 federal wage floor. Clinton responded with calibrated support for a hike to $12 an hour, in what will probably be described as a compromise.
Sanders hit Clinton for being the candidate of Wall Street, and the two went back and forth over whether Clinton was sufficiently tough on the financial industry, though both agreed that Glass Steagall should be reinstated. Neither, notably, offered even a cursory explanation of what Glass Steagall does, how it might have stopped the last financial crisis, or how it might improve economic stability in the future.
And while Clinton attempted to straddle the line on Obamacare by saying that the law should be defended from Republican critics, but also saying that it should be strengthened to help control costs and reduce health premiums (didn't President Obama promise it would already be doing that), Sanders insisted that the only true path was to go the single-payer route—Medicare for all—in which the government is the universal insurer for everyone. He didn't mention that a long-gestating single payer plan in his home state of Vermont had recently been called off because the tax hikes would have been unbearably high.
O'Malley was also present at the debate, and he said several things as well.
The debate helpfully illuminated the distinctions between Clinton and Sanders, the most prominent avatars of the Democratic party's center and its leftward, respectively. And yet it also illuminated the broader ways in which they are all rather similar, determined to increase the government's power over labor, wages, the economy, and health care, among other things. The only real debate was over how much.