Critic's Notebook: Hillary, Bernie and Three White Guys Walk Onto a Stage ...

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Clinton basked in the attention, Sanders growled with energy and three other dudes tried (to no avail) to grab the spotlight in a debate that was dull because it actually focused on — OMG! — real issues.

Tuesday night's first Democratic presidential debate featured Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and … three other guys.

A star was definitely not born during the event, no doubt dashing the hopes of Martin O'Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, who were trying for the sort of post-debate poll boost enjoyed recently by the likes of Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson. Despite their impressive resumes, none of the three men had a breakout moment. The opening segment featured all of the candidates introducing themselves, and never has the word "introduction" seemed so appropriate. It certainly featured some strange moments, such as Chafee pointing out that his best attribute was having "no scandals"; Webb citing his past as a "sole proprietor" (of what, he didn't say) and mentioning that one of his daughters is a massage therapist; O'Malley telling us his name; and Clinton, one of the most divisive politicians of our time, declaring that she would "heal the divides."

Sanders, the oldest of the candidates, was also the most energetic, delivering his opening statement with a forcefulness that even Donald Trump could envy. Still, it's hard not to think of him as your elderly uncle who loudly extols the virtues of socialism during a holiday dinner before falling asleep in front of the TV with his pants open.

It was easy to sympathize with the CNN honchos who were no doubt hoping that Joe Biden would leap onto the stage at the last moment and announce that he was running after all. A podium was apparently set up just offstage for such a possibility, but perhaps they should have tried leaving out some milk and cookies as well.

The broadcast began with a typically bombastic CNN intro that seemed more befitting a heavyweight title bout than a presidential debate, although to be fair, the event was held in Las Vegas. Even more surreal was the singing of the national anthem by Sheryl Crow, but hey, every variety show needs a snappy opening number.

The candidates took pains to announce the many differences between their debate and the previous ones held by the Republicans. The primary difference that they failed to mention was that this one was dull — but that was an inevitability considering that it didn't feature a clowns' car worth of candidates and that it mostly dealt with (what are they called again?), oh, yes, issues.

Lacking the personal attacks by the candidates on each other — and, unlike the Republican debates, on large swathes of the American population — the evening was mainly notable for its quirky moments. Sanders, asked to define "democratic socialism," mainly referenced Scandinavian countries, attracting appropriate sarcasm by moderator Anderson Cooper and prompting Clinton to proclaim, even while dismissing his model as not viable here, "I love Denmark!"

Sanders went on to explain that he was not part of the "casino capitalist process," with the irony that he was speaking at the Wynn Las Vegas presumably not escaping him. Later in the evening, he probably didn't help himself politically by literally calling for a revolution. The marginal candidates, for their respective parts, didn't help themselves with their responses to a question about their electability. Chafee announced, "You're looking at a block of granite," as if that was somehow a good thing. Webb, defending his record of opposition to affirmative action, actually used air quotes when referring to people "of color." And O'Malley had a hard time explaining why he wasn't to blame for Baltimore falling to pieces while he was governor.

Reflecting the inevitable nod to social media, the event included Facebook questions posed by people while filmed in the back of a roving van. The authorities might want to check to see if any of them have been heard from again.

The NRA played a significant role in the evening, with the candidates competing among themselves as to who had the bragging rights to the lowest rating by the organization. Except for Webb, that is, who admitted that he had an "A." But then again, his positions were often so far to the right of the others that he may very well wind up on the stage of the next Republican debate.

The most vibrant exchanges of the evening came after Clinton was not surprisingly asked about her e-mail scandal. Sanders rushed to her defense, garnering a huge ovation after proclaiming, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned e-mails." Then, after Chafee begged to differ, Clinton got an even bigger cheer when she declined to respond.

Despite his impressive military record and bearing, Webb came off as the most petulant candidate on the stage, whining so much about the lack of attention paid to him that Anderson had to remind him that he had agreed to the rules. At one point, Sanders even had to assure him that he would tell Anderson to let him speak next.

Chafee didn't come across much better, defending several of his past votes in the Senate by saying that he was just siding with the majority. O'Malley, clearly hoping to be the environmental candidate, kept repeating that he would somehow ensure that the country would have a "clean electrical grid by 2050."

But it was, of course, Hillary who got the lion's share of attention. Working a dozen variations on the "I was for it before I was against it" theme, she seemed perpetually ready to sing "The Sidestep" number from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Toward the end of the evening, when the candidates were asked which one of their enemies they were most proud of, it seemed fitting that she was the only one who had trouble deciding.

 

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