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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders: Grading the Debate

Felsenthal breaks down how the Park Ridge native beat her biggest rival during last night’s Democratic presidential debate

 Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

There may have been five people on stage last night for the CNN Democratic debate, but everyone who tuned in knew it really came down to two: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Yes, the other three candidates—Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb—filled out the rest of the stage, but O’Malley was just okay, and Webb and Chafee made little impression (when rating the opponents, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post did not even include Webb). But on to the Hillary and Bernie show. Here’s how they measured up in four areas.


Bernie appeared to forget that a microphone was in front of him. He shouted at the audience in his strong Brooklyn accent. By contrast, Hillary managed to keep her voice and laugh—so often forced and awkward—clear and modulated, with no trace of the nasally lilt that she’s prone to. She spoke like the woman of the world she is. Was she reciting rehearsed lines? Yes, but she delivered them so well. For the first time in a long time, Hillary seemed human. Case in point: After a commercial break, which doubles as a bathroom break for the participants, when moderator Anderson Cooper remarked that he was glad to see everyone back behind their podiums, Hillary, who presumably was the last to return, responded, “It takes me a little longer.” Every woman knew what she was meant.

Winner Hillary


Bernie had better lines, such as his claim that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.” Match that with Hillary’s “I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York.” But she did get in one of the more memorable lines of the night: When Chafee criticized Clinton about her private email use and moderator Anderson Cooper asked if she would like to respond, she uttered a swift, firm “No.” As BuzzFeed put it: Badass.

Winner Tie


When she was Secretary of State, Clinton described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as setting “the gold standard in trade agreements.” Last night, in explaining her recent announcement that she opposed the deal she helped to negotiate, she said, “I did say, I hoped it would be the gold standard” of trade agreements. The word “hope” is nowhere to be found in her previous statements promoting the deal as the best thing for American jobs and workers, ensuring “…open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” Cooper, who otherwise was as fine a moderator as we’ve seen in presidential debates, didn’t seem to notice. On her flip-flop opposition to the Keystone Pipeline: “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone,” she said last night, seeming to channel John Kerry’s 2004 line that helped to cost him the presidency: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” Bernie stuck closer to the facts, though he slipped when confusing unemployment with underemployment and seemed to contradict an earlier statement regarding whether gun manufacturers hold any liability when it comes to gun crimes.

Winner Bernie


Hours must have been devoted to putting the 67-year-old Clinton together: She looked fabulous, even in HD. Sanders, 74, looked awful. Sure, he’d trimmed his wild white locks for the occasion, and his suit, shirt, and tie were a couple of notches higher than his typical campaign uniform. But he looked pale, old, and exhausted, the lights glinting off his big smudgy glasses. Though Hillary requires pop-bottle-thick lenses, she was savvy enough to stick to her contacts, as usual.

Winner Hillary


Barring some deal-breaking findings by the FBI, which is currently examining Clinton’s now-infamous private server, she’s got a lock on the nomination. The biggest obstacle in Hillary’s way is not Bernie; it’s the possibility that Joe Biden will enter the race. Despite CNN’s ardent efforts to coax the Vice President onto the debate stage, he decided to stay home. He watched the proceedings from his digs at the Naval Observatory in D.C. One can imagine him and his family hoping that Hillary would make a fatal blunder of the magnitude of then-President Gerald Ford when he claimed, during the 1976 campaign, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” The mistake cost Ford the election to the largely unknown Jimmy Carter. No such luck in 2015 for Biden, whose two tries to get the nomination ended in humiliation. Biden still might run. Aren’t vice presidents, especially two-term VPs, supposed to move up? But in the wake of Hillary’s debate triumph,  Biden’s best reason for getting in at such a late date has evaporated. 

The next Democratic debate airs on CBS on November 14.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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