0 Minutes. NBC bills tonight as “The Last Debate Before the First Vote.” They should call it the “First Democratic Debate Not Scheduled for a Saturday Since October.” It is a Sunday, which would be an improvement if tomorrow were not a holiday. A more honest tagline would read, “The Third Democratic Debate in a Row Scheduled at a Time When You Won’t Watch.” So far Democrats have only gotten 33 million people to tune into their three debates. Republicans have had an audience of 102 million for six debates. Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman-Shultz is winning by trying to lose. Democracy is weird, pretty much all the time.
1 minutes. The candidates are here on stage: Frumpy Uncle, Buzz Lightyear, and Heir Apparent. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wears button-down collars and his Senate pin, as if he forgot this morning that he wasn’t going to work on Capitol Hill. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a big American flag pin, because that’s what Buzz Lightyear would do. And Hillary Clinton looks typically well-appointed, because she doesn't have to pretend. She’s already won this thing.
3 minutes. Opening statements. Clinton crams hers with a bunch of words that activate different members of the coalition that her pollsters have decided will put her in the White House: “Congressional Black Caucus . . . my youth minister . . . higher pay for working people . . . keep our communities and country safe.” She concludes by saying, “We need a president that can do all aspects of the job.” This is a reference to the fact that O’Malley has never seen the Situation Room, while Sanders often struggles to keep his hair in place. Also, she is bragging about her ability to hire pollsters who write this stuff for her.
5 minutes. Sanders goes next with a greatest hits from his stump speech: “economy that’s rigged . . . corrupt campaign finance system . . . millionaires and billionaires . . . political revolution.” The difference is that his keywords are aimed at a single group of pissed off people, which probably includes most of the different groups Clinton was trying to target. Polls, at least in Iowa and New Hampshire, suggest his words are better than hers.
6 minutes. O’Malley kind of sings when he talks. His inflection rises and then falls with each sentence. His voice also gets louder and softer. It sometimes sounds compelling, and sometimes feels condescending, like a Muppet imitating a statesman. “We need new leadership,” he says. This means that unlike the other two, he has the youthful body of a superhero and you have never heard of him before.
7 minutes. NBC’s Lester Holt asks for each of the candidates to give the top three priorities for their first 100 days in office. It’s basically a kindergarten challenge. Can you count to three? None of them can. Sanders lists off about seven priorities. Clinton lists at least nine things, which she groups into three rough categories of unequal sub-parts. O’Malley’s first category of three has five unrelated issues. Almost all the candidates’ priorities would be impossible to accomplish in 100 days with a Republican Congress.
10 minutes. Holt asks the candidates to fight about guns. Sanders clumsily tries to explain his record as a rural Senator and congressman, which meant that he often voted against gun control even though he wants more gun control, and besides, as a President with rural roots, he would be better positions to strike deals that would make real gun control happen. Also, just this weekend, he reversed his position on protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits. Follow the bouncing ball.
Read More: Clinton Hits Sanders Hard on Guns
12 minutes. Clinton has a world of opposition research hurt ready to throw at Sanders. In a few seconds, she lists off about 10 votes Sanders has taken against stricter gun control. It gets real detailed. “He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak, guns go into national parks,” she says. The attack is clinical, undercut only by the fact that Clinton seems to be looking down at her notes as she delivers it.
14 minutes. O’Malley chimes in to point out that Clinton has not always been so anti-gun, either, and calls both his rivals “inconsistent.” Then he starts throwing around brutal imagery—“that boy’s head was pierced with a bullet”—that makes everyone forget what he just said.
16 minutes. This leads into a discussion of criminal justice reform, police criminality and Sanders problem with attracting minority voters. All three candidates compete to appear more outraged than each other, none really disagrees on policy, and Sanders points out that polls are changing all the time. Black voters will come around to him once they get to know him, he says.
23 minutes. A similar drill with the opioid and heroin epidemic. All are outraged, empathetic, informed. All have plans that are similar. Sanders makes the good point that the drug companies that make the pills that are hooking all these people have a responsibility here as well.
25 minutes. As Holt cuts to a break, O’Malley tries to get in a word. “Just ten seconds,” he pleads. Lester Holt will not be messed with as he cuts to a break. O’Malley loses.
30 minutes. We’re back to fight about healthcare. Clinton has made the case that Sanders desire for universal government-run healthcare—Medicare for all—will dismantle things Democrats like, including Medicare for old people, Obamacare and a children’s health plan. Sanders points out that his plan would keep providing all the stuff that Democrats currently have and like, plus a lot more. To summarize: Sanders wants an apple. Clinton says if you want an apple, you will destroy the orange. Sanders says the apple actually contains the orange. In truth, the whole debate is not about principles, but about tactics, since Republicans are a mallet seeking to crush all government fruit. They fight to a draw.
42 minutes. Sanders gets the old question about whether anyone can take a candidate seriously if they call themselves a “socialist.” He answers by saying the Democratic Party needs to be reformed to create a 50-state-strategy, which is exactly the reform that was imposed on the Democratic Party in 2005.
43 minutes. O’Malley repeats his central thesis—that Clinton and Sanders are old and stale. “All my life I brought people together over deep divides and very old wounds,” he says. “And that’s what we need now in a new leader.” He also talks about “when I stand on a chair all across Iowa.” That is either a slip of the tongue or he is boasting of his balancing ability, like Buzz Lightyear would.
46 minutes. Clinton is asked why Sanders is beating her by a margin of 2-to-1 among younger voters. She clearly does not think it has anything to do with her habit of not answering direct questions. “I’m going to keep working as hard as I can,” she says.
47 minutes. As Holt cuts to commercial, Sanders tries to get a word in. But again, Holt holds nothing back. The commercial is cut to.
51 minutes. The next topic is the economy, which in this context means a discussion of Clinton’s campaign contributions and speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. “I don't take money from big banks. I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs,” says Sanders. Clinton shoots back by saying Obama took money from Goldman, and he turned out okay. Then Clinton drops another oppo-blizzard. “Senator Sanders called [Obama] weak, disappointing,” she says. “He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”
53 minutes. Sanders counters by pointing out that he supported Obama in both elections, and that Obama supported him in 2006. Then he repeats himself. “Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?” he says.
58 minutes. O’Malley tries to get between them, and attacks Clinton. It goes around for a while, until Clinton throws out a Hail Mary. “Senator Sanders, you're the only one on this stage that voted to deregulate the financial market in 2000,” she says. This is simply stunning. The bill she is referring to was signed into law by President Clinton. Her husband. Whose record she has made a central selling point of her own campaign.
66 minutes. Everyone agrees global warming is bad, science is good, and Republicans stink. Sanders blames global warming for the 65 degree weather in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve.
76 minutes. After an extra-long commercial break, interrupted by mid-debate analysis by the debate moderators, we return to talk foreign policy. Once again, this is not really a debate. The candidates agree, but still try to draw contrast in outrage, empathy and summary details. They like the Iran nuclear deal. And don’t want ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
82 minutes. O’Malley rails against the evils of synecdoche, arguing that it is disrespectful when Republicans say “boots on the ground” when referring to ground troops. Some suits and gray beards might disagree, thus setting off the wagging tongues. Unless those are offensive as well, in which case, we can just start talking in 0's and 1's.
90 minutes. After a question about Clinton’s work in the State Department on Russia, Holt asks Clinton what her relationship is with Putin. For a moment, Clinton is lost for words, and she seems suddenly refreshing and sincere as she grasps for the formulation to explain without giving too much away. “It’s, it’s . . . interesting,” she settles on, smiling. “He's someone that you have to continuingly stand up to because, like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can unless you do.”
92 minutes. The requisite debate talk about technology encryption follows next, and predictably reveals nothing. Encryption questions in presidential debates are about as useful as currency questions in White House press conferences. The answers are all inoffensive platitudes. Everyone wants to do good without doing bad through greater cooperation and leadership.
94 minutes. Just as Holt is trying to take another break, Clinton tries to interrupt. Holt is as unforgiving as ever, and he talks over her. This earns him a debate moderator hat trick. He shut down each of the candidates when they tried to prevent him from cutting to commercial. Three cheers for Holt.
98 minutes. But Clinton apparently has heft. When they come back from commercial, Holt gives up his hat trick on a technicality. “As we were going to a break, Secretary Clinton, I cut you off,” Holt says. “I'll give you 30 seconds to respond.” Why her and not the others? As a result, everyone gets more time. All his good work has been undone.
99 minutes. O’Malley says, “If Donald Trump wants to start a registry in our country of people by faith, he can start with me, and I will sign up as one who is totally opposed to his fascist appeals that wants to vilify American Muslims.” O’Malley seems to be confusing a faith registry with a petition.
104 minutes. Sanders is asked about his description of Bill Clinton’s personal life as “totally disgraceful and unacceptable.” “That question annoys me,” Sanders answers. “We've been through this. Yes, his behavior was deplorable. Have I ever once said a word about that issue? No, I have not.” The fact checkers will review this statement. But he seemed to mean it earnestly, and Hillary Clinton seems to appreciate the sentiment.
109 minutes. The grand finale is a snooze. Holt basically asks if anyone has anything else they want to say. O’Malley talks about immigration reform and Puerto Rican debt. Clinton mentions the water crises in Flint, Mich., and the failures of the governor to address it. Sanders does another rant on campaign finance reform and political corruption.
113 minutes. We are done for the night. The next Democratic debate will be broadcast during the second quarter of this year’s SuperBowl by password-protected livestream. To obtain a passcode, you must watch a three-minute Priorities USA ad that consists entirely of Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz laughing uproariously. The video will be posted in a time and place of her choosing, depending on how Clinton is doing in the polls. See you then.