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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Good policy debate but lousy television

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the other Democrats provided interesting political discourse but lousy television.
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the other Democrats provided interesting political discourse but lousy television.
Published Oct. 16, 2015

When it comes to presidential debates, we've become so very spoiled.

Until last week the nation had been treated to four Republican debates, two involving the Broadway A-list cast of characters and two others best described as the opening vaudeville act of also-rans, never-wases and fat chances.

But these moments have really been less about "debating" the great issues of the day than mealymouthed efforts to out-preen, out-posture and out-pout the grand and glorious gourd of the GOP, Donald Trump. Great television to be sure. Lousy political discourse.

Then along came the debate with five Democratic Party presidential contenders Tuesday night, which turned into interesting political discourse and lousy television.

First, can we please dispense with former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who looked like lost Sons of the Desert conventioneers who stumbled onto the stage? With apologies to Bill Maher, new rule: When your polling numbers are barely above Jimmy Hoffa's pulse rate, you don't get to pretend people actually give a gnat's patootie what you think about the Keystone XL pipeline. Nobody cares, not even your family. Go away.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's polling figures aren't much better, but he gets to stick around because he looks like a president and he's really running for vice president anyway.

That leaves Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Mr. Dithers of the hustings, and Hillary Clinton, who if the White House thing doesn't work out would be perfect as the next bloodless M to Daniel Craig's James Bond.

Who would have thought that after the Republican pie fights, rhetorical short-sheeting and circumlocutory temper tantrums, two hours of Democrats slogging through public policy discussions would be a boring relief? It was a reminder that for all the declasse Trumpian huffing and puffing, this is a fairly serious process to select the next president of the United States. Really.

It was a fairly civil two hours of back and forth on the environment, guns, the Middle East, taxes, immigration, education and, of course, Clinton's emails, which Sanders is sick and tired of hearing about. So is Hillary.

Gaffes were fairly few. Memo to Lincoln Chafee: The buff Dwayne Johnson can refer to himself as a pillar of granite. That's why he is called The Rock. When you have a physique that would result in the Secret Service code name of "Gumby," do not refer to yourself as a pillar of granite.

But perhaps the most laughable moment of the night occurred when Clinton argued that she is an "outsider." This insider/outsider stuff is all the rage this campaign season, with gazillionaires Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson enjoying comfortable polling numbers by insisting they are Washington outsiders who barely can find the capital on a map.

Clinton portrayed herself as a noble stranger in a strange land, noting: "I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president."

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Cue the eye-rolling. Clinton may be many things, some printable, some not. She might even get elected president. But for a woman who began her public life as a staff member on the House Judiciary Committee investigating the Watergate scandal, lived for eight years in the White House as first lady, was intimately involved in crafting policy, served eight years in the U.S. Senate and another four years as secretary of state, the word "outsider" with 24/7 Secret Service protection does not come to mind.

And we haven't even gotten around to the homes in Georgetown and Chappaqua, the vacations in the Hamptons and $300,000 speaking fees. Oh, the travails outsiders must contend with.

Was the Democratic debate scintillating viewing? Not really. But it was revealing.

It was O'Malley who put the evening into perspective when he observed: "On this stage you didn't hear anyone denigrate women, you didn't hear anyone make racist comments about new immigrants, you didn't hear anyone speak ill of anyone because of their religious belief."

And all that was true. Lousy television. Interesting discussion.

But don't despair. The Republican presidential candidates — all 235 of them — will reconvene in Colorado for another oratorical mosh pit on Oct. 28. Infinitely more potentially entertaining. Scarier, too.

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