Fifth Democratic debate was smarter and less vicious than past debates. That's good news.

Last night, at least, I felt a little bit better about where we are as a party. These smart men and women love their country and they want to make it better.
Candidates Attend Fifth 2020 Democratic Presidential Debates
2020 presidential candidates stand on stage before the Democratic presidential debate in Atlanta on Nov. 20, 2019.Elijah Nouvelage / Bloomberg via Getty Images
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By Adrienne Elrod, NBC News and MSNBC contributor

In the middle of a riveting yet depressing week, when millions of Americans are watching the ultimate test of our democracy play out on live television, Democratic presidential candidates served up a refreshing, upbeat debate. It was just what many of us were hoping for tonight.

Sure, there were moments of contrast. Right out of the gate, Sen. Cory Booker — who had his best debate performance so far Wednesday — walked a fine yet effective line criticizing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s support of a wealth tax. Some might think this a risky strategy, as defending millionaires is not exactly popular among the Democratic primary electorate. Yet Booker used this moment to talk about the need to increase wealth in inner cities and rural areas, smartly pivoting to his plan for economic justice.

When millions of Americans are watching the ultimate test of our democracy play out on live television, Democratic presidential candidates served up a refreshing, upbeat debate.

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s resilient national poll numbers are a testament to the fact that you don’t have to be an exceptional debater to cultivate a loyal voter base. But despite a few gaffes, he had some good moments Wednesday night, too, most notably on health care. He finally did what many moderate voters had hoped he would do in the previous debate — effectively advocate for the protection of Obamacare versus "Medicare for All." In the last debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg made this case, with an assist from Sen. Amy Klobuchar. But last night, Biden made a forceful argument for why Medicare for All would have no chance of passing a Mitch McConnell-led Senate.

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Still, among the front-runners, Buttigieg owned the night. The candidate’s poll numbers are looking better and better in Iowa and New Hampshire, but he was rarely targeted by his rivals on stage. A particularly impressive moment came at the beginning of the debate, when he eloquently turned a question about impeachment into a call to action.

“We are absolutely going to confront this president for his wrongdoing, but we're also each running to be the president who will lead this country after the Trump presidency comes to an end one way or the other,” Buttigieg said. “I'm running to be the president for that day the sun comes up and the Trump presidency is behind us, which will be a tender moment in the life of this country.”

The exceptional all-female panel of debate moderators — Rachel Maddow, Andrea Mitchell, Ashley Parker and Kristen Walker — were sharp, on point with the follow up questions, respectful of each of the candidate’s time and most importantly, raised important issues that impact women’s economic security. The engagement from my corner of the liberalverse was very high, especially when Parker, a Washington Post reporter, asked several questions about the lack of a paid family federal leave policy in the United States. In previous debates, candidates led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand fought tooth and nail to inject paid family leave into the debate dialogue, but tonight they didn’t have to. Amen.

In fact, a majority of those on the debate stage were women tonight — four moderators and four candidates. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of our progress as a nation. However, many hurdles we have yet to overcome.

Even Sens. Klobuchar and Kamala Harris, both struggling to find mainstream traction, had breakthroughs. Klobuchar’s near-perfect ability to deliver a one-liner was on display in a riff about politics and gender. Harris also needed a strong debate performance; chills went up my spine when she wove the pressing topics of racial injustice and pay inequity into a riff that took a slight swipe of Buttigieg’s limited experience in elected office.

“When black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America,” said Harris, “when the sons of black women will die because of gun violence more than any other cause of death, when black women make 61 cents on the dollar as compared to all women, who tragically make 80 cents on the dollar, the question has to be, where you been? And what are you going to do? And do you understand who the people are?”

The impeachment process, while necessary, is overwhelming and can take its toll. Which is why after a few days of 24/7 coverage, it was a relief to see the Democrats take the high road tonight. Ultimately, this debate didn’t have any big zingers or super viral moments, but the Democratic candidates are getting sharper on the debate stage, their arguments more compelling. They’re also getting used to each other’s tactics. Could some of them even be becoming friendly?

Much has been said about the softness of the Democratic primary field this year. The perennial question for many voters — Democrat and Republican — is, can they beat Trump? But last night, I at least, felt a little bit better about where we are as a party. These smart men and women love their country and they want to make it better. And I think they have a pretty good chance of getting that opportunity. What a relief.