INDIANAPOLIS — Democrats just don’t do reality TV as well as Republicans do.
Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate was nowhere near as entertaining as the two Republican debates have been. The Democrats’ talkfest in Las Vegas lacked both the comedy and the drama of the GOP gatherings.
That, in some ways, is to be expected.
Democrats are having a contest to determine who will be their standard bearer in the 2016 campaign.
Republicans, on the other hand, are in the midst of a war — one fought sometimes with ferocity and sometimes with ineptitude — for the soul of their party. Half of the GOP wants to elect a president, and half seems to want to elect a rebel chief to storm the gates of the capital.
Muted as it might have been in comparison with Republican debates, the Democrats’ night had its intriguing moments. Several things became clear during the course of the evening.
The first is that, at least at this stage, the Democratic candidates aren’t inclined to attack each other. The most revealing indication of this solidarity, of course, was the defense of Hillary Clinton by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.
“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said in response to a question about how Clinton handled her email correspondence as secretary of state.
In addition to defending Clinton, Sanders also managed to indict both Republicans and the media.
The second revelation came with the interest groups Democrats have cast as their rogues gallery. The National Rifle Association took a pounding early in the debate, and Wall Street and insurance companies spent much of the night taking punches from all five candidates. Polluters and other opponents of environmental protection measures also had a rough night.
The third area of illumination involved the motivations of the candidates.
Clinton, not surprisingly, is determined to be elected president, and she’s running with a discipline she didn’t demonstrate in 2008. During this debate, she avoided the tone of slightly panicked stridency that often marred her performances when she last ran for president and lost to Barack Obama.
It seems clear Sanders, on the other hand, is less concerned about winning the race than he is about using this campaign — and the heightened scrutiny it brings with it — to focus attention on the issues he cares most about. He’s running because this is likely to be the biggest and best bully pulpit he ever will have.
And former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb from Virginia and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee just desperately want someone to pay attention to them.
Who did well and who didn’t?
Clinton came in with the most to lose. Her goal was to get through the night without doing any damage to her front-runner status, and she did that. She looked poised and demonstrated an understanding of a greater variety of issues than any of the other candidates on the stage.
Sanders also had a good night. If this debate had been an “authenticity” primary, then Sanders would have won it. He came across as a slightly cranky truth-teller, a little wild-eyed but as real as a favorite pair of jeans.
O’Malley battled his way into the spotlight and made the most of his time there. He might not have made a case for himself as president, but he did present himself as a thoughtful presence.
Chafee and Webb flailed.
Chafee had one of those moments from which it will be difficult to recover. He said in answer to a question that, as a senator, he once had voted on a bill he didn’t understand.
Webb spent much of the evening complaining that he wasn’t being given enough time and then spent the time when he did have the floor complaining still more that he wasn’t being given sufficient minutes in the spotlight. It seemed petulant, not presidential.
Unlike the GOP gabfests, the Democrats’ debate isn’t likely to shake up the field much or launch unknowns or outsiders into contention.
Again, the Democrats just don’t do reality TV that well, but that might not be such a bad thing.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.