Did Hillary Clinton "win" the first Democratic debate? Sure. The headline on Politico's story published right after the debate ended summed things up: "Clinton crushes it." Although she certainly had a couple of answers she might like to rephrase, overall her performance was informed, confident, even relaxed. A forum like this plays directly to her strengths, so it's not particularly surprising that she "won."
But here's the thing: Who "wins" a debate is basically meaningless. You don't get any delegates for "winning" a debate.
Nevertheless, we'd be naïve not to acknowledge that the same people judging who "won" — the political reporters and pundits who cover this stuff — will determine what everyone remembers about the debate, and those choices can have a real impact on the race. If, for instance, we in the media decided that Lincoln Chafee won, we'd spend the next week writing and talking about Lincoln Chafee and how charismatic and appealing he is; all that attention would then bring him more money and more supporters. (Alas, that will not be happening; the only discussion about Chafee at the moment is what the heck he's doing running for president and whether he should be excluded from the next debate.)
A couple of months from now, if I ask you what you remember from this debate, unless you respond, "That weird moment when Jim Webb talked about killing a guy," you'll almost certainly say it was when Bernie Sanders said to Clinton, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," and then the two shook hands while Clinton let out a positively joyous laugh. If you can find a story about the debate in any newspaper that doesn't mention it, I'd be shocked. That repetition will lodge the moment in everyone's mind, leaving it there even after we've forgotten just about everything else that happened Tuesday night.
And a few months from now, we could look at that moment — combined with Kevin McCarthy's ill-considered boasting about how the Benghazi committee brought Clinton's poll numbers down — as the point when the emails began to fade away as a campaign issue, when reporters decided that absent some shocking new revelation, we really had said just about all that needed to be said about them.
That's the real power of televised debates: not that people watch them and right at that moment change their minds about a candidate or an issue, but that their perceptions and beliefs are changed over the ensuing days and weeks, as journalists continue to repeat a particular interpretation of what happened and what it means.
That's how it has always been with televised debates. When Gerald Ford said in his 1976 debate with Jimmy Carter, "There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration," most viewers probably understood what he was saying — that the Soviet influence there was less than complete, and he'd continue to work to keep it that way (he went on to talk about Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland as places resisting Soviet domination). But in the ensuing days, the news was filled with stories about Ford's "gaffe," and his poll numbers slid down. The same scenario was repeated in nearly every subsequent election. If you're old enough to remember the debates from 1988 and 1992 or even 2008 and 2012, what is it that you remember? Probably nothing but the one or two moments, usually involving a "gaffe," that the press repeatedly reminded you of.
So it is that despite the fact that there was plenty of substantive discussion in this year's first Democratic debate, most of it won't be remembered for long. And let's not forget that although debates can be informative and even (sometimes) entertaining, they tell us next to nothing about whether any of the contenders would be a good or bad president. The president has to do many different things, but debating is not one of them. Debates are a performance, and there are good performers who would make terrible presidents and vice-versa.
Nevertheless, if you're a Democratic voter trying to figure out who should get your support, you could have learned some important things Tuesday night. You would have learned that while there are some differences in the candidates' records, they share basic premises on almost everything. For instance, Clinton criticized Sanders for some of his votes on gun legislation, and he defended himself — but both accepted that politicians need to stand up to the NRA and do more to restrict the proliferation of guns. You would have learned that Clinton wants a no-fly zone in Syria, while Sanders and Martin O'Malley disagree (though Sanders supports air strikes). You would have learned that Clinton wants to impose new regulations on the big banks, while Sanders actually wants to break them up.
But the one thing you wouldn't have learned from any of the candidates is exactly how they plan to pass their ambitious agendas through a Congress that will be controlled at least in part by Republicans whose unremitting hostility to anything a Democratic president wants to do is unlikely to disappear once Barack Obama leaves office. That may be the most critical question the Democratic candidates need to answer for primary voters. It was brought up Tuesday night, but the answers were vague and unsatisfying.
There will be five more Democratic debates (at least; it seems that everyone except DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz wants more), so there will be more opportunities for the candidates to be confronted with that question. Everyone should pay close attention to their answers — no matter what most of the media tells you afterward was the moment you ought to remember.