Hillary Clinton came out smiling. She used her opening statement in the first debate of Democratic candidates Tuesday to remind people of her not-always-apparent humanity:
She’s grandmother to a 1-year-old, and also a mother, daughter, and on and on.
Paid family and medical leave?
She’s for it.
Bernie Sanders came out scowling. There was no softening of his grumpy edges.
That’s good: He is his edges. He talks in bumper-sticker aphorisms, like this: “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”
Even scowling, he made the hall laugh, especially when he provided the night’s most memorable moment.
It came after Clinton gave her usual explanation for setting up a private email account when she was secretary of state. (It was a mistake. It was allowed. Congressional Republicans are exploiting it for partisan gain.)
Sanders turned to Clinton and made eye contact. A risky move: Men confront women on debate stages at their peril. In 2000, Clinton’s Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, may have lost the New York Senate race when he moved aggressively toward Clinton’s podium.
In 2008, Sen. Barack Obama won no friends when he called Clinton “likeable enough.”
But Sanders pulled it off.
“This is not very political,” he said, “but the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned emails.”
A moment later they were shaking hands, to the biggest cheer and only standing ovation of the evening.
Sanders and Clinton both proved themselves on Tuesday night.
Without moderating his unrelenting gloom or changing his ill-fitting, shiny black suit, Sanders proved himself a master of fact and a model of good temperament, despite the scowls.
Nothing seemed memorized but all was at his fingertips. For a socialist, he is awfully mainstream.
Look at the polls and see that big majorities agree with him on the issues. Who but the most hard core on Wall Street wouldn’t agree with his satisfying take that the working and middle class shouldn’t have paid for the havoc wreaked by the big banks, which are bigger than ever?
Or his stats on the concentration of wealth. If you took a drink every time he said billionaire, you would have been overserved before an hour had elapsed.
As for Clinton, she bobbed and weaved much more than Sanders but was never successfully called on it. I am woman hear me equivocate, she seemed to say on her Iraq vote, her flip (or not) on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, her closeness or not to the 1 percent. She killed on gun control. She didn’t act inevitable. She should retire the line that she is automatically an outsider candidate because she’s a female candidate or we will start fact-checking.
And maybe she found a sense of humor, even if it was bathroom humor. As she returned late from a break, she said, “You know, it does take me a little longer.”
For some drama to compete with the Republicans who provide plenty in their debates, it would be good if one of the others had broken through.
But it was the Hillary and Bernie show from start to finish. There were no gaffes. There were no haymakers. No one broke character.
If you loved Bernie going in, and so many, especially young people, do, you loved him more by the end. If you had doubts about Clinton because of the emails and her facile moves to the left, you probably were reassured by her commanding performance.
The Democrats may not have boosted ratings the way the Republicans did with their brawling debates, but they boosted confidence in our politics.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.