Clinton stronger after first Democratic debate. Race stirred but definitely not shaken

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To no one’s great surprise, Hillary Clinton emerged unscathed and perhaps stronger from the first Democratic debate.

Her rivals appeared to forget that this was, as CNN kept promising in the lead-up to the Nevada forum, their Big Opportunity to shake up the race.

Maybe the race was stirred, but it was decidedly not shaken.

How could it be when all five candidates vying to be the Democrat standard-bearer in 2016 tried to top each other in spending even more taxpayer money? Free college! Free healthcare! Subsidies for green energy!

It was clear from the start that none of contenders wanted to take on President Obama, or even their front-runner Hillary Clinton. If you had recently immigrated from Mars, you would have thought that the Republicans had been in the White House for a very long time.

Let the good times roll!

And, when it was clear from the start that none of contenders wanted to take on President Obama, or even their front-runner Hillary Clinton.

If you had recently immigrated from Mars, you would have thought that the Republicans had been in the White House for a very long time.

There was much hand-wringing over the state of the economy, about the high cost of college, racism, stagnant middle class incomes, the level of income inequality; the list of problems and challenges went on and on.

No one tied Obama to any of these concerns, though he has occupied the Oval Office for nearly 7 years.

Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb each tried to distinguish themselves with varying degrees of success.

Lincoln Chafee twice mentioned that he had managed to get through his entire career scandal-free – clearly a veiled reference to Hillary Clinton’s numerous legal and ethical challenges over the years.

Jim Webb emphasized his military career and spoke out against the Iran deal, which he said had sent a “bad signal” of weakness to the Russians. He also tried to get the group focused on our differences with China, but no one took the bait.

O’Malley pressed his executive experience as governor of Maryland, during which time it appears that he has introduced every single policy brought up by the other candidates. If they were for it, he had already done it. Gun regulations, marriage equality, justice reform, embracing immigration reform – he was there first. Funny no one noticed.

There were shades of blue, of course. Bernie Sanders and Jim Webb are softer than their colleagues on gun control, Hillary Clinton was gently reprimanded for not backing reinstatement of Glass-Steagall, O’Malley and Sanders oppose a no-fly zone in Syria while Hillary is for it.

Because of the way the debate was structured, the majority of the time was taken up Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who are leading in the polls.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper attempted a couple of probing questions, asking Hillary whether her about-face on the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans Pacific Partnership showed that she would say anything to get elected, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Similarly, he prodded Bernie Sanders on why it took him and his Senate colleagues so long to address problems at the Veterans Administration, but let him off easy. There was no follow-up.

Hillary Clinton was focused, strong and articulate. She clearly benefitted from the 19 debates she has participated in during past elections.

She also did an excellent job of keeping the animus pointed directly at Republicans. She repeatedly argued (falsely) that the GOP was not focused on the middle class, but instead intent on cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires. That kind of simpleminded chatter plays well in Democrat circles.

It was Bernie Sanders, though, who came through as genuine and passionate – with his authentic indignation over the amount of income and wealth held in the U.S. by the top one percent, by our lack of parental leave, by the sloshing of corporate monies into politics and by the ongoing power of Wall Street.

There is no question that Bernie is incensed over these issues, while Hillary’s apparent conviction stems from hundreds of focus groups and hours spent practicing her facial expressions.

Nonetheless, Hillary looked at Bernie as you might gaze at a slightly deranged but well-meaning uncle, correctly convinced that his prospect of winning the nomination is close to zero.

The best moment of the night -- for both the front-runners -- was when Bernie Sanders yelled that Americans are “sick and tired” of hearing about Hillary’s “damn emails,” which, bless his heart, he prefaced by acknowledging that it was probably not good “politics.” He got that right.

As for CNN, it was disappointing that there was so little push-back. For instance, since Bernie Sanders talks about climate change being a “moral issue,” it would have been interesting to ask whether charging Vermonters the 8th highest electricity costs in the nation was not also a moral issue.

Sanders and others applauded the closing of Vermont’s nuclear power plant, which provided 70 percent of the state’s electricity at very cheap prices; it is low-income people who are disproportionately hurt when power costs go up.

Cooper could have asked if Martin O’Malley’s 40 different tax and fee hikes imposed on the residents of Maryland might have caused the huge exodus of 72,000 people, costing the state billions in lost tax revenues.

He might have challenged Hillary’s assessment that legalizing pot might lessen the large number of people in prison for smoking marijuana. In fact, very few people are jailed these days for using pot.

But, instead it was a love-fest. As a result, my guess is the ratings for the next Democrat debate will sink faster than Lincoln Chafee’s candidacy. Unless, of course, Joe Biden comes into the race. Then we might actually have a contest on our hands.