The first Democratic debate hosted by CNN Oct. 13 drew an average of 15.3 million viewers, making it the highest-watched Democratic debate in history. From Anderson Cooper’s first question, it was evident that the debate would demonstrate a marked difference in tone and substance from the first two Republican debates. Viewers immediately saw that candidates would have to answer difficult, pointed questions onstage. While the debate focused on the issues and might not have produced fireworks, it was a welcome departure from the personality-centric clown shows from the GOP — those were more reminiscent of reality television than a presidential debate. None of the democratic candidates discussed, for example, plans to round up millions of “illegal” immigrants for deportation, the defunding of Planned Parenthood or the potential to overturn the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. Instead, progressive and thoughtful discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement and climate change brought huge applause from the Georgetown crowd at the viewing party in the Healey Family Student Center (with the exception of Jim Webb, whose answers drew loud boos from the crowd and relegated him, along with the shockingly bad Lincoln Chafee, to punchline status).
In the Student Center, the level of energy and excitement was palpable. Hoyas for Hillary took up the front rows and handed out stickers, while Georgetown for Bernie supporters handed out hundreds of flyers, posted Bernie 2016 signs and tabled at the event. The Bernie flyers explained the current controversy over the Democratic National Committee’s decision to allow only six democratic primary debates (in contrast to the 26 that took place in 2008 and the 9 Republican debates still scheduled through 2016) and to bar the candidates from participating in other debates through an exclusivity clause. This decision has been heavily criticized, as the debate cycle in 2008 allowed an unknown Barack Obama to introduce his charisma and leadership to the country and to shake up the primary race. Both Sanders and Martin O’Malley have called for more debates, pointing out that they are one of the few democratic platforms where candidates can introduce themselves and their stances to the public. Students were encouraged to tweet “#allowdebate” and tweet at @gtownforbernie to engage in the larger social media conversation. Throughout the night, Sanders showed why he is overwhelmingly popular among Georgetown students.
Onstage, for two and a half hours, Sanders pushed for progressive issues and consistently set the agenda. Sanders has centered his campaign around economic inequality in the United States today, a message that draws record numbers of supporters to his events. As a result, a significant amount of debate time was devoted to economic issues, with Sanders taking the lead. Throughout the debate, Sanders highlighted the gross inequalities between the one percent and the rest of the country, criticized the overt influence of money and Wall Street in politics and argued for breaking up big banks, reinstating Glass-Steagall, overturning Citizens United, providing universal health care and paid family leave and making college affordable.
Sanders also discussed his longtime support of civil rights and LGBTQ justice and his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His well-known and popular stances have forced the other four candidates to move to the left in order to remain viable, even when they must change their stances to do so. As a result, while other candidates spent the debate fending off charges of flip-flopping, justifying changes in position and defending poor decisions in hindsight, Bernie was able to use the debate to showcase his consistency and commitment to progress.
In a move that Sanders himself acknowledged as less than politically expedient, Bernie refused to take advantage of the opportunity to criticize Clinton for her email scandal, telling Clinton that “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Again in sharp contrast to typical political strategies, Sanders emphasized that he refuses to run a negative campaign and will focus only on actual issues affecting the country. To many, Bernie’s voting record speaks for itself; regardless of whether people agreed with his positions or not, it was undeniable that his message was sincere.
It is of no surprise that his campaign has also galvanized energy nationwide. Bernie Sanders was mentioned 407,000 times online on Tuesday night, with 69 percent of his mentions ranking as positive (compared to Hillary Clinton’s 56 percent). He raised an unbelievable $3.2 million dollars within three days following the debate, all from small and individual donors. Sanders saw the greatest increase in his number of Twitter followers and had the highest number of Google searches. He further won by a landslide in all online polls and focus groups. Though political pundits and mainstream media outlets declared Clinton the winner of the debate, the people’s choice is clear. Sanders did an incredible job presenting himself as the only truly progressive and electable candidate who is committed to putting democracy and the people first. Students like me look forward to the next five debates.
Caleb Weaver is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. He is the co-founder of Georgetown for Bernie.
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