First Debate: A Truly Impressive Showing

Four of the five Democratic candidates for Congress had their first debate Tuesday night, obligatory sponsor credit to VTDigger, and I have to say, all four of them did extremely well. From start to finish, they put on one of the best debate performances I can recall viewing. Their answers were direct and concise (I only counted one time when an answer went over the 90-second time limit). Each of them had a clear message, in words and in presentation, and they got their messages across. A few jabs were thrown, but there were also expressions of respect. Camaraderie, even.

Maybe this is what we get when the women take the stage. Makes me think we’ve been electing the wrong gender all these years.

So, before I start picking away at this thing, I’ll say it again: I came away with a positive view of all four participants. You have to get down to the nit-picky level to find grounds for criticism. They even handled the “Name one mistake you’ve made” question with aplomb. None fell back on the “I can’t think of one” or “Sometimes I’m too smart for my own good” kind of stuff that you often hear from, well, male politicians. Each referenced a mistake, owned it and explained it, openly and honestly.

The debate was a real display of the importance of representation. Lt. Gov. Molly Gray named paid family leave as her top priority. I doubt you’d hear a man say that. Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint made eloquent use of her identity as a gay woman. Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale and Sianay Chase Clifford showed how their lived experience informs their work on behalf of women and people of color.

I’m going to focus most of my attention on presentation, for two reasons: Voters are more swayed by their impressions than by policy positions. Likeability and relatability count for a lot, and I say that as someone who cares about policy. Second, there simply wasn’t much separation on the issues. Gray took a more moderate position several times, but that makes her a Pat Leahy/Peter Welch type, not some Republican in Democratic clothing. Ram Hinsdale and Chase Clifford positioned themselves in the progressive camp; Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint was, for the most part, right there alongside. She differed more in approach than in substance.

There were differences in how each candidate described how they’d work in Congress. Ram Hinsdale and Chase Clifford cast themselves as progressive firebrands. Balint staked out progressive policy positions, but also talked of the need to work with people you disagree with. “I serve with senators who voted against my right to marry. I have to work with them,” she said, and summarized her approach as “sometimes fire, sometimes water.”

Gray was more focused on the work-across-the-aisle stuff, citing current U.S. Rep Peter Welch as an example, and describing her approach as “thoughtful, pragmatic, inclusive leadership.”

If I had to rank their performances, and it’s a very close call, I’d put Balint first, Ram Hinsdale second, Gray third, and Chase Clifford fourth. But the margin is roughly the difference between an A and a B+. Indeed, I came away with a better impression of Gray and Chase Clifford than I had going in.

Chase Clifford stood her ground and accomplished her most important goal: Showing that she belonged, that she isn’t some twenty-something interloper running on a whim. Her youth did show on occasion, but damn, was she impressive when she rattled off this or that Congressional policy initiative or debate. She knows her shit in a way that belies her years. She made herself credible. That’s crucial for a virtual unknown.

Her showing, in fact, could become a problem for Ram Hinsdale. The two are angling for the same slice of the electorate. If Chase Clifford emerges as a legitimate choice, she’d likely erode Ram Hinsdale’s support.

Balint seemed the most authentic of the four. That’s not surprising given how comfortable she is in any political situation, whether it’s a one-on-one encounter, a robust policy debate, or the daunting task of leading her Senate colleagues without offending their delicate sensibilities. Balint maybe looked a little tired, but hell, she’s holding down two very demanding jobs — heading the Senate and running for Congress. And she wasn’t too tired to articulate her positions and communicate her message with energy and conviction.

Ram Hinsdale seemed to have two goals: Occupy the progressive lane, and show heself as a serious, experienced politician. Throughout most of the debate, she kept a no-nonsense look on her face. Which is fine. But there was obviously a purpose for that presentation.

She did, at times, come across as trying just a little bit too hard. There was some resume-padding from time to time. From her description of her legislative career, you wouldn’t know that there was a four-year gap between 2016 and 2020. She boasted of passing 38 bills in her year-plus in the Senate; that sounds like a count of bills that she sponsored or co-sponsored. I doubt she led the charge on 38 separate occasions.

Ram Hinsdale also referenced an occasion where she shared a stage with Welch, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and then-Sen. Barack Obama. Sure, and probably about three dozen other people. And one more thing: she began her opening statement by describing herself as a “champion for working families.” The backdrop — a gleaming, open-concept kitchen — didn’t exactly sell the message. Could have chosen her Zoom location more wisely.

For her part, Gray seemed more authentic than she has in the past. There was a naturalness about her. There was also a fair bit of resume inflation. Her carefully limned account of her career wouldn’t tell you that she’s served less than two years in public office. In her opening statement, in fact, she twice referred to herself as “experienced,” which is a stretch. She made it seem like she and Welch were thick as thieves; at one point, she said “working with Peter — sorry, Congressman Welch.” Yeah, sorry.

Even so, both Gray and Ram Hinsdale were absolutely credible. I think both accomplished their main goal: Gray to show a bit more humanity, Ram Hinsdale to prove she’s to be taken seriously.

Honestly, it’s kind of a shame there’s so much talent in this primary race. There will only be one winner. Based on this showing (and subject to change), I’d have no trouble supporting whoever emerges from the primary. Yes, I was impressed.


3 thoughts on “First Debate: A Truly Impressive Showing

  1. Lily Doyle

    John, I had a different takeaway. Gray is pure padded ambition—what’s she been doing for 2 years but planning her next ascension? Chase Clifford had me from “Vermont is a beautiful place that didn’t find me beautiful” and I hit paypal when she said Congress does a great job working for corporations. Congress needs to work for the people and she didn’t pile on the deification of Peter Welch. You and I both caught the disconnect with Ram Hinsdale’s gleaming kitchen and working people rhetoric. Balint wants this so bad and isn’t she just sooo nice?

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      To each their own. I was grading candidates based on their performances, not their positions. Each had different goals in mind entering the night; Gray did a good job, I thought, of adding humanity to her presentation.

  2. Andrew C.

    Molly only cares about Molly. I hope voters see right through her phoniness. We need someone who puts Vermont first, not another career politician who games the system for their own advantage, their political class donors, and all the lobbyists that come with it.


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