BRATTLEBORO—Political debates are more interesting with a crowd.
People clapping and cheering — and even the hisses and heckles that punctuated the first Democratic presidential debate on Oct. 13 — raised the more-than-two-hour broadcast to a communal experience.
Two venues in town hosted showings.
Up the street and around the corner, McNeill’s Brewery at 90 Elliot St. also played the debate on its large television in a viewing party organized by volunteers from the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Topics for the evening included capitalism, climate change, Black Lives Matter, investing in education rather than jail cells, gun control, income inequality, the conflict in Syria, and potential threats to national security.
Based on an informal analysis of whoops, cheers, claps, and laughs at the candidate’s jokes, Sanders seemed the favorite at both venues, edging former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a strong second.
Comments by Martin O’Malley, former mayor of Baltimore and former governor of Maryland, elicited a number of nods and claps, while former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb received the highest number of groans. Both audiences seemed to find the men too conservative.
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Debates are better with popcorn.
The Latchis opened its main theater for the debate, where approximately 75 people attended the event, some with popcorn and concessions.
As the lights went down and the broadcast started, one audience member shouted, “Yeah! Berrrnnnnieee!”
Each candidate received polite claps on taking the stage in Las Vegas, with the applause for Vermont’s own senator dwarfing the cheers for the other candidates.
Much of what the candidates spoke about in their opening remarks they’d stated before in other interviews or on campaign websites. One new talking point: tackling climate change as not only an environmental necessity but also as an economic opportunity.
Clinton defined herself as “a progressive who likes to get things done,” when asked by debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN if she’ll say anything to get elected.
Some debate watchers later commented that Cooper’s question to Sanders about whether a socialist could get elected in the United States was a stupid question.
Yet the question also highlighted how new and strange Vermont’s longtime political official still feels to the rest of the country.
Vermonters have witnessed Sanders’ work over many years. His multiple terms in office from mayor of Burlington to Congress would indicate that among voting Vermonters, the issue of his electability is a moot point.
Sanders answered Cooper’s question a little differently. He urged people to go to the polls. “Republicans win when there’s a low voter turnout,” he said.
Clinton jumped in on the issue of whether Sanders supported capitalism.
“Do I consider myself part of the casino-capitalist process, by which so few have so much and so many have so little? By which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy?” Sanders answered. “No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well, not just a handful of billionaires.”
Clinton said it would be a mistake for the country to turn its back on the system and entrepreneurism that had grown its middle class. But, she said, capitalism also needs to be reined in.
“We have to save capitalism from itself,” she said.
Sanders countered with a yes/but: yes, we are a country of entrepreneurs, but it’s a problem when most of the growth is amongst the top one percent of wealth holders.
Sanders took some heat from O’Malley over gun control and Sanders’ support of not holding gun manufacturers liable when individuals use their weapons to kill.
Sanders pointed to a difficulty passing gun control laws in rural states with strong hunting traditions compared to more urban states. O’Malley countered by saying that rural sections of Maryland had strong hunting traditions, yet passed gun control legislation just fine.
Foreign policy and military intervention also seemed to be a topic where Sanders became unfocused and Clinton stood firm. On the topic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Clinton said, it was time to stand up to his “bullying.” Sanders said he would change his tune when Russians started dying in Syria and the Russian people told him enough is enough.
Sanders’ and Clinton’s comments raised the question: Is the incarceration of members of the punk collective Pussy Riot a sign of Putin listening to his people or of his bullying?
A surprise moment of unity between Sanders and Clinton elicited laughter and applause from both audiences, in the Latchis and in Las Vegas.
“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damned emails,” Sanders said in response to discussion about the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state.
Instead, said the senator, let’s talk about real issues like income inequality.
An intense hush fell over the audience when the candidates were asked through a prerecorded question from a member of the public who asked, “Do black lives matter or do all lives matter?”
Sanders had been criticized about his lack of focus on issues facing members of the black community. Earlier this year, members of the Black Lives Matter movement interrupted two of Sanders’ campaign events.
“Black lives matter,” Sanders said. “The reason those words matter is the African-American community knows that on any given day, some innocent person like Sandra Bland can get into a car and then three days later she’s going to end up dead in jail, or their kids are going to get shot.”
“We need to combat institutional racism from top to bottom, and we need major reforms in a broken criminal justice system,” he said.
The Latchis audience remained hushed as the candidates answered this question.
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Meanwhile, beer was making debates even more enjoyable.
People filled McNeill’s Brewery on Elliot Street. They sat against the wall, huddled at the tables, and stood in the remaining space.
All eyes focused on the television above the door as friends whispered in small groups.
A cheer went up for O’Malley when the candidate called Republican candidate Donald Trump a “carnival barker.”
One group of friends enthusiastically cheered every candidate. They also cheered the commercials. (“Toe fungus 2016!)”
Some audience members answered Cooper’s questions on behalf of the candidates. As was the case at the Latchis, most of the favorable comments at McNeill’s reflected support of Sanders.
The audience perked up when the conversation turned to the surveillance program of the National Security Agency (NSA) and to whistleblower and former federal contractor Edward Snowden’s part in releasing government files on the agency.
Sanders’ assertion that he would “absolutely” shut down the NSA’s surveillance programs received a cheer.
Clinton and O’Malley received hisses for their condemnation of Snowden as a traitor. Those hisses, however, were not as loud as the silence that followed Sanders’ answer.
“I think Snowden played a very important role in educating the American people to the degree in which our civil liberties and our constitutional rights are being undermined,” Sanders started, and the audience made happy noises.
“He did break the law, and I think there should be a penalty for that, but I think what he did in educating us should be taken into consideration,” Sanders concluded.
Thud, went the silence.
Some audience members cheered the candidate’s pledges to tackle climate change. Webb may have sealed his fate with his support of off-shore drilling and nuclear.
“Oh, my God,” groaned one audience member. Multiple hushed conversations cascaded through the room.
In her closing remarks, Clinton asked the television audience, who has the track record?
An audience member at McNeill’s cried, “Bernie!”
While audience participation and attention was high at both venues, questions remained.
Did the debate make a difference? Or had many of the viewers already made up their minds about which candidate they’d support?