Democratic debate: Clinton brings it

Story highlights

  • CNN commentators weigh in on winners and losers in CNN debate
  • They say on civility and substance, it was in stark contrast to GOP debates; Clinton, Sanders both had good nights

(CNN)CNN Opinion asked a range of contributors for their take on the CNN debate of Democratic presidential candidates. Who were the winners and losers? The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

Julian Zelizer: Dems' startling contrast with GOP debate

Julian Zelizer
The contrast between the Democratic debate in Las Vegas and the first two times the Republican candidates met was striking. Those debates frequently looked like a political version of reality television. Donald Trump thrived in large part because of the overall quality of the discussions. "Unless the Democrats can talk one of the Kardashians into running," joked CNN commentator Paul Begala, "don't expect the Democrats' ratings to approach the Republicans."
    While each Democrat in Las Vegas demonstrated a number of vulnerabilities as well as strengths -- and there were a few moments when they delivered some zingy one-liners -- what was most notable about the evening was the image that they conveyed about their party: this is a party that is focused on governance.
    The most heated moments tonight didn't come from candidates discussing insults about how other candidates looked, as memorably happened in the GOP debate, but rather when the candidates squared off about what to do about gun control and banking regulation. The policy-driven discussion might have felt too much like a college seminar to many viewers, but the tenor of the event could have an extremely beneficial impact at a moment when public opinion about the GOP has suffered greatly because of obstructionist tactics in Congress. In July, Pew reported that their polls showed only 32% of those polled had a favorable view of the Republican Party.
    So the winner in the debate tonight was the Democratic Party. As the House Republicans struggle to bring their caucus under control without a speaker, and as Ben Carson spent the week making shocking comments about Nazis and gun control, the Democrats came out of Tuesday night looking like a party that is ready to govern. In an era of Washington gridlock, this is the most powerful message that the Democratic candidate, whoever that might be, will be able to sell to voters in the coming months.
    Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society" and co-editor of a new book, "Medicare and Medicaid at 50: America's Entitlement Programs in the Age of Affordable Care."

    Ana Navarro: Republicans, it's time to get serious

    Ana Navarro
    I am a self-admitted political junkie. I love good political debates. The Democratic candidates, aided by excellent moderating by Anderson Cooper, just treated us to a great debate. Hillary Clinton came ready to take fire and give fire. Bernie Sanders stumbled some on the gun issue, but was vintage Bernie Sanders the rest of the debate. Martin O'Malley had a slow start, but warmed up as the debate went on. Jim Webb -- when he wasn't whining about not getting enough time -- made some good points.
    Lincoln Chafee compared himself to a "block of granite." Unfortunately, a real block of granite may have contributed more to this debate. He did not justify his presence on that stage and needs to exit stage left now.
    My takeaways: Debates matter. The DNC is making a big mistake not sanctioning more debates. This was an interesting, lively and substantive one. We got to see a productive exchange of ideas by the candidates, and this is good for the candidates, good for the voters and good for democracy. Allow more debates.
    To my party, the Republicans, I say: It's amazing how many informative discussions on important national issues you can get to when not wasting time making fun of Rosie O'Donnell and other candidates on the stage. It's time to get serious.
    Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, was national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. She is supporting Jeb Bush's candidacy for 2016. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

    David Gergen: Clinton and Sanders turbo-charged their campaigns

    David Gergen
    Two candidates stole the show Tuesday night in Las Vegas in ways that -- at least for now -- are likely to reshape the dynamics of the Democratic race.
    Hillary Clinton did exactly what she needed to do: she re-emerged for the first time in months as presidential. She was polished, often warm and relaxed, and in command of all the issues. When others attacked her judgment on the Iraq war, she also had the best retort of the night, pointing out that Barack Obama trusted her judgment well enough to make her secretary of state.
    In contrast to her well-manicured performance, Bernie Sanders was his slightly rumpled self but he brought a passion and emotional connectedness that for the first time showed a national audience why he is attracting massive crowds. He also delivered the most dramatic moment of the night when he declared that voters were sick of hearing about Hillary's "damn e-mails".
    While Martin O'Malley got in occasional points (is he auditioning for veep?), the other three candidates were mostly a sideshow.
    Bottom line: Clinton edged out Sanders on debating points but both of them turbo-charged their own campaigns. As both win accolades, its hard to imagine Hillary supporters now issuing fresh calls for Joe Biden. Has he waited too long? Is it now a two-person race? This debate could have made a big difference.
    David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been a White House adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and co-director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School.

    Maria Cardona: Hillary Clinton dominated her opponents