For a while on Saturday afternoon it looked like the Democratic debate might be lost to history as events in Paris overshadowed the day’s affairs. The mood on Drake University’s campus was somber, the campaigns scaled back their activities, much of the press was focused on Paris and there was just a lack of overall energy present. And then the debate started and we ended up getting a great, well-moderated, substantive and entertaining discussion where the candidates sharply argued their differences without getting too nasty.
All three Democrats performed well Saturday night, with Martin O’Malley the most obviously improved of the bunch. Hillary Clinton defended her front-runner position well enough, but O’Malley got the most out of the night. He looked like every bit the equal of the two other political rockstars on stage despite his positions in the polls, and did a good job presenting his “record of results” talking points and distinguishing his policy views from Clinton’s and Sanders’.
O’Malley had a number of strong lines during the debate, like his attack on Donald Trump as a “carnival barker” on immigration, his “fact-check me” dare and, most of all, his “boots on the ground” story from a mother of a service member. Those are moments that should stick in viewers minds long afterward, and may finally give O’Malley a real shot to move up in the polls.
The one major weak spot was his failure to come up with a good example of how he dealt with a crisis, and at times in the debate revealed the limitations of his experience as a Governor compared to a Secretary of State. Still, if nothing else, he certainly bought himself more time and gave the supporters he does have a confidence boost.
The problem for O’Malley, as it has been this entire race, is his two rivals committed few stumbles and put in strong performances as well.
Bernie Sanders thrived in the middle section of the debate focused more on health care and the economy. His strongest point came when he reminded the audience that his plan for tax increases on the rich would be no more than what it was under President Eisenhower, demonstrating the “socialist” label isn’t quite what people think it means.
Sanders was particularly eager to mix it up with Clinton over Wall Street, obviously well-prepared to launch a full-on attack over her “not good enough” proposal and refusal to reinstate Glass-Steagle. For Democratic voters concerned over Clinton’s progressive credibility, Sanders effectively sowed more doubt.
He did start the debate somewhat awkwardly, however. Sanders only used a few sentences in his opening statement to lightly address the Paris attacks, then immediately switched to his more comfortable talking points on economic issues. It was a too-obvious display of his preference for domestic policy, and might add to concerns over his ability to match up with Republicans on world affairs. It’s odd, too, because he was more than happy to get into it with Clinton once again over the Iraq War vote. Sanders will need to work on some stronger ISIS answers going forward.
Clinton used the debate stage last night to demonstrate once again how uniquely qualified she is for the presidency. She defended her lead in the polls well and showed she’s taking nothing for granted, going toe-to-toe with Sanders and O’Malley anytime they came after her. She blasted right back at O’Malley for appointing an investment banker himself to a financial regulatory position when he took her on over Wall Street money. And she had no qualms defending her positions to the right of Sanders on health care and college affordability, poking holes in the likelihood Sanders’ agenda could actually get done. Her response to the crisis question easily won her the final section of the debate, reminding all of her involvement in taking out Bin Laden and the many challenges she’s faced in her long career in public service.
While all the candidates performed well, Clinton likely won the evening by fending off her opponents attacks and presenting a strong, electable personality. However, the victory may only be in the short-term. Long-term, she offered up a number of questionable responses that could be used against her for a long time to come.
Clinton’s linking of the 9/11 attacks to her defense of her Wall Street connections made no sense. Worse, it sounded similar to what Republican politicians did for years – pivot to 9/11 talking points whenever you get in a bind on a separate issue. She also probably should have laid out more details of her Wall Street reform plan, instead of simply claiming it was stronger than Sanders’ and O’Malley’s. Also troublesome for Democratic primary-goers was her insistence that the authorization of force resolution after 9/11 allowed for operations to combat terrorism anywhere. That could open a real can of worms for her if Sanders presses on that in the next few weeks.
Looking ahead to the general election, her quip that she was “from the 1960’s” will likely find its way into negative ads, as well her line that confronting terrorism “cannot be an American fight” will probably get twisted too.
Most distressingly for all the Democrats, their answers on ISIS and terrorism need real work. None offered convincing arguments as to why they refuse to call it “radical Islamic terrorism,” and the Republican candidates will harp on this for weeks to come. Democratic primary-goers will shrug off the distinction, but it’s a needless exercise in PC semantics that will distract from the real foreign policy conversation in the general (and will be the subject of a longer future Starting Line post).
All in all, a solid night of debating for the Democrats, in which every candidate competently presented their message and policy distinctions. Democrats have a real choice coming up, with three legitimate contenders to select from.
by Pat Rynard