Column: Stilted, awkward debate yields few useful answers about Democratic candidates

The three remaining nominees vying for the Democratic presidential nomination met Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa, for their second official debate, which aired on CBS. Although the focus was initially to be domestic policy, organizers shifted that focus to foreign policy in wake of the attacks in Paris, much to the dismay of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, as Sanders’ passion is in domestic issues, while the leading Democrat, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has much experience in foreign policy. Often forgotten, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley joined the duo to round out the field. Underdogs Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee had dropped out of the race since the first debate.

The debate opened with candidates offering statements on the Paris attacks and a series of questions on foreign policy. Admittedly, maintaining a balance between asserting one’s credentials to be commander-in-chief while remaining reverent to a recent tragedy is a fine line … no candidate showed excessive zeal, and the debate began on a mellowed tone, in stark contrast to Republican debates. The audience was virtually silent for the first segment, also apparently wanting to show respect.

Eventually, the debate became somewhat more lively, aided by a one-liner from Governor O’Malley in which he referred to Donald Trump as an “immigrant bashing carnival barker” before chastising Trump’s plan to deport some 11 million illegal immigrants, arguing that the symbol of America is the Statue of Liberty, not a barbed wire fence. It was one of few good moments for O’Malley, who was largely the third wheel on the stage, given his low poll numbers in comparison to Clinton and Sanders. Several times, he sought to interject his opinion in a dialogue between the aforementioned frontrunners, but was rebuffed by the moderator, John Dickerson. However, the sheer fact that O’Malley was on stage improved his stature, and likely aided his campaign.

For Sanders, it was an okay night. His message on domestic policy resonates with groups whose political efficacy historically lags, especially young people. To that end, he articulated his belief that public college should be free, the minimum wage should be $15 per hour, and that America should move to a single-payer European style healthcare system. Pressed for specifics on how to pay for such expensive proposals, he was vague other than the standard “make the rich pay their fair share” comment. He would not give a specific number on how much he would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans, except to say it would be lower than 90%, which was the highest tax bracket under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s; “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” he quipped. Sanders was significantly less articulate on foreign policy, except to note time and again how he opposed the Iraq War from the start, unlike Hillary Clinton, who has admitted that she made a mistake in voting for the authorization for use of military force in the Senate.

Clinton offered the most polished performance of any candidate on the stage, but some of her arguments were patently ridiculous. Although she admitted she made a mistake in voting for the authorization for use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq, she also commented she thinks that congressional action authorizes the President to take unilateral action in Syria to combat the Islamic State (ISIS). That was one of two major incongruous arguments. The other was when she defended her receipt of major campaign donations from Wall Street by suggesting that because Manhattan -- where Wall Street is -- was attacked on 9/11 and she spent a lot of time helping to rebuild that area, donations from Wall Street were a “way to rebuke the terrorists who attacked our country.” Social media exploded with harsh (and deserved) criticism from conservatives and liberals alike; this comment will almost certainly appear in a campaign ad, probably mashed up with an (admittedly out of context) soundbite of her saying “What difference does it make?” in regards to who was responsible for the Benghazi attacks during a Senate hearing. Whether such an ad can decimate a general election campaign remains to be seen -- Clinton is obviously a shrewd politician, as evidenced by her disingenuous but potentially damaging attacks on Republican candidates wherein she asserted Republicans believe all Muslims are responsible for terrorist attacks like 9/11 and like the one in Paris this past weekend. On the plus side, she did make an impassioned argument to make healthcare more affordable when she argued that Medicare should have the power to negotiate for better prices on prescription drugs, which certainly seems to be a valid point.

Overall, the debate is unlikely to significantly change the landscape of the Democratic Primary; Hillary Clinton won by not losing, Bernie Sanders lost by not winning, and Martin O’Malley won by being on the same stage as those two. The Iowa caucuses are in two months.

--Benjamin Pontz, Editor-In-Chief

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