All three Democratic Presidential contenders were at the top of their games on Saturday night, but, given the time slot the Democratic National Committee had agreed to, relatively few people saw them. Early ratings indicate that only around eight million viewers watched the debate in real time, far fewer than the 18 million who tuned in for the prime time GOP debate last Tuesday. This was largely thanks to DNC Chairman Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Hillary supporter not eager to turn the spotlight on either Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley. Only political junkies and others with atrophied social lives managed to watch the discussion, well-moderated by my former WCVB colleagues Martha Raddatz and David Muir.
From his opening statement, former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor O’Malley gave a forceful plea for party unity and an impassioned pitch for what our times require. Its theme was that “our next leader must not surrender to terrorists, not to racists, not to billionaire bigots with big mouths…..The symbol of American is not barbed wire but the Statue of Liberty.” Later in the debate, he would show a strength in foreign policy almost entirely lacking when we heard him speak months ago at a New England Council event in New Hampshire.
Senator Bernie Sanders also showed he could comfortably go beyond his core issues of economic injustice and articulate a clear point of view on foreign policy and national security. He faulted Hillary for supporting the war in Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, and charged that moves for regime change in Iraq, Libya and Syria have been initiated without thinking through the long-term implications or post-regime-change strategy. He then went on to prescribe building coalitions with moderate Arab nations in the Middle East and augment the fight against ISIS with Muslim boots on the ground.
For her part, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was strong and well informed by experience. She keyed her remarks to a general election audience. She defended her proposal for a no-fly zone in Syria, though she dodged a repeated question about whether she’d order a Russian plane that violated it to be shot down. She also insisted that the United States couldn’t let up on its goal of deposing Bashar al Assad at the same time we go after ISIS. O’Malley and Sanders both decried the evils of Assad but said ISIS is the top priority and the two goals cannot be pursued simultaneously. O’Malley stressed that getting rid of dictators would require a political, rather than solely military, process.
There was a lively debate over fealty to Wall Street. No question where Bernie Sander is on that and where he thinks Clinton is. Hillary defensively responded, “I have more donations from students and teachers than I do from people associated with Wall Street.” She invited people to check it out at OpenSecrets.org, a group that tracks the sources and flow of political money. OpenSecrets challenges her data analysis, and notes that a candidate can’t leave out her super PAC donations to measure sector support. And a post-debate analysis by The Washington Post notes that, while the number of donations from teachers and students exceeds the number of donors from Wall Street (there are, of course, more “teachers” and “students” than Wall Street financiers), the amount of money is vastly larger from Wall Street.
O’Malley took advantage of the dust-up between the other two to say that the answers to our economic problems are neither socialism nor crony capitalism. Score points for O’Malley. (Both O’Malley and Sanders, by the way, favor the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall legislation barring banks from functioning as securities firms, a ban unwisely done away with under Bill Clinton’s administration.)
Despite a generally strong performance, Hillary overplayed her assertion that ISIS is using videos of Donald Trump for recruitment purposes. Political fact-checkers have found no evidence that video is being used, though there are plenty of references to Trump in ISIS social media that his anti-Muslim rhetoric is proof that we are at war with Islam. So, why did she have to go that one step too far? It’s too bad, because the overreach taps the latent suspicion, never far from the surface, that she either lies or is being ill-served by staff people who prep her. Mischaracterizing videos unwittingly invites an uncomfortable equivalency to Trump’s serial unsupported assertions and adds fodder to her “untrustworthy” meme. Her would-be Republican opponents predictably jumped on this this unforced error, making it the debate’s most lasting takeaway.
Santa’s gift to all of us is that we now get a debate-free break for the holidays, which I hope are happy and healthy and full of family and friends for all of you.
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