Substantively, it’s hard to say there was much new in Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate, other than the timing (a weekday!) and the format, which—with the departure of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley—pit Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton against each other one-on-one. Both candidates made their core pitches and seemed to be targeting their core constituencies. For Sanders, it’s the call for a “political revolution” against a political system that, he argues, is a playground for corrupt, plutocratic interests and their allies in government. The only way to improve life for the majority of Americans, Sanders believes, is through a radical overhaul of public policy, from single-payer health insurance to free college and campaign finance reform.
For Clinton, it’s a more modest agenda of defending past progressive accomplishment and implementing incremental new programs. As president, Clinton would seek to protect the gains of Barack Obama and push on areas where progress or consensus is possible. And her agenda, like Sanders’, reflects this basic, reformist orientation to the world.
If there was anything novel in the debate, it was the degree to which the first segments were devoted to an almost arcane fight over ideology. Both Clinton and Sanders fought for the label of progressive, continuing a dispute that began on Monday, the same day that Clinton edged out Sanders by the narrowest of margins in the Iowa caucus. In this argument, the candidates got aggressive, with Clinton in particular making direct hits on Sanders in a way that surpassed previous exchanges. “I’m not making promises I cannot keep,” she declared, more than implying that her opponent would not be able to keep his. Later, she disputed Sanders’ definition of progressive and told him that “I don’t think it was progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times.”
That burst of fireworks aside, however, it’s hard to say this debate was anything other than substantive, with Clinton and Sanders clashing on real and serious ideological differences around everything from the role and influence of money in politics to the national security and foreign policy priorities of the next president. Yes, there were the typical questions about “electability,” and no, there weren’t questions on reproductive health or climate change—key interests for millions of Democratic voters. But on the main, anyone who watched the debate had a chance to see two politicians and public servants argue for their vision of the country and its future. This was a real contrast to the Republican debates, which tend to focus less on policy and more on dominance displays (Trump versus Bush, for example) and outright aggression (Cruz on carpet bombing).
Which is to say that, if you’re a Democrat, it is an actual shame that the party hasn’t held more of these debates. A regular series of primetime showdowns between the candidates would provide an incredible contrast between the two parties, and showcase the Democratic candidates at their absolute best.
It’s not that quantity of debates is dispositive—if Democrats lose this election, it won’t be because they didn’t argue enough in public—but that not having more might be a missed opportunity to show the best face of the party to interested Americans, as well as win positive attention for each of the contenders. Democratic leaders should take note: Next time there’s a primary, schedule more debates. You won’t regret it.