After two seemingly-endless Republican debates, this week the Democratic candidates for president finally got their turn to face off against each other on national television. While the audience was smaller (since Donald Trump was not on stage), it was still a lot bigger than most political debates in the past -- over 15 million people watched on CNN, and a further million livestreamed it. This is up from the usual audience of 2-to-5 million, it should be noted, from years past.
Because of the importance of the first debate of the season for Democrats, we're devoting the entire column today to scrutinizing the various talking points (good and bad) delivered by the candidates. This means this introduction is going to be possibly the shortest ever in one of these columns.
In one paragraph, here's all the interesting things Republicans said this week, before we get to the Democratic news. A second House Republican reinforced the quote from Kevin McCarthy on the true purpose of the Benghazi hearings, baldly stating: "I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton." Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the committee, had his own off-the-cuff comment on his fellow Republicans: "I think the House is bordering on ungovernable right now.... Being speaker is a very difficult job. We need to have a family conversation and sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before that conversation starts. We're getting close." His sentiments were echoed for the party at large by the chairman of the Republican National Committee, who admitted: "I think we're cooked as a party for quite a while as a party if we don't win in 2016." He followed this up with: "I mean, we don't exist as a national party if we don't win in 2016. You can't compete 16 years out of the White House, it's just not possible." And to end on a humorous note (instead of all this Republican doom-and-gloom), Karl Rove has a new phrase to describe Bernie Sanders: "an elderly, dyspeptic Bilbo Baggins." OK, who can come up with the funniest Middle Earth description of Karl Rove? Share your thoughts in the comments!
OK, enough Republican follies. Let's get on with our recap of the Democratic debate. Warning: this is going to be a long column, folks.
We're not going to get into the fracas between Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters over who "won" this week's debate. Instead, we're just going to hand out two Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week awards, one each to Clinton and Sanders.
Before we get to their awards, however, it is worth noting that, in a general way, the Democratic debate was much more focused on policy and discussions of the issues than anything we've seen on the Republican side. It was an impressive debate, especially when contrasted with the free-for-alls which have happened among Republicans. But then they're handicapped by having a frontrunner named Donald Trump, so this isn't really a fair comparison.
We're not big fans in general of declaring winners in debates, because we think it is actually pretty rare when one candidate dominates the field in any significant way. Most political debates are full of nuance and sliding scales of effective speaking. We do admit that we're much more inclined to declare losers in debates, because it is often much more obvious who had a bad night (which we'll get to in the next section in more detail). Having said all of that, though, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a good night this Tuesday, and both have energized their respective campaigns because of their performance. That's impressive for both of them, and we'll all just have to wait until the polls come out (early next week, likely) to see whether the debate had any effect on their relative support from Democratic voters.
A bad debate performance could have been quite costly to either Clinton or Sanders. Clinton needed to remind a lot of Democrats why she's a formidable candidate worth supporting. Sanders needed to introduce himself to millions of viewers who might have heard his name but had never heard him speak before. Both candidates easily cleared those bars. Clinton finally got to talk about something other than Benghazi and her emails, and Bernie laid out the core reasons he is running (and doing so surprisingly well).
Hillary Clinton did a great job of reminding people how exciting her 2008 campaign was for millions of Americans (including millions of women aching to see the first female president). She gave a lot of good reasons for Democrats to support her, and she continued a new openness which began a few weeks ago (which included appearing on the Ellen DeGeneres show and Saturday Night Live). She's working on showing some emotion and passion and other more human qualities, and doing a pretty good job of it if the debate is any indication. She wasn't weaselly (or "lawyerly" if you prefer) at any time during the debate, with the possible exception of disavowing any previous support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. She showed off her debating skills -- something a lot of people had forgotten about -- especially when brushing off Martin O'Malley by simply answering "No" when asked to respond to his critique over her emails. One could easily imagine her doing well debating just about any of the Republicans running, after watching Hillary Tuesday night. We'll all have to wait a little longer to see what the polling says, but our guess is that Hillary went a long way towards reversing her recent slide in the polls of Democratic voters. She had a very strong night, and the public will likely react favorably.
Bernie Sanders stole the night with one quip: "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails." If this debate is remembered in the lore of American politics beyond next month, this will be the line everyone remembers. It was really a sweeping indictment of the media itself, although that part was edited out to get the line down to a soundbite. Beyond one very good line, though, Sanders did a good job of laying out his rationale for running for president. You might sum it up as: "The game is rigged." While the word "populism" has been tossed around with abandon the past few years, Bernie is the real deal. He's a latter-day Roosevelt (either one) when it comes to taking on Wall Street and the banking industry. His message is a simple one, too: "It doesn't have to be this way." Sanders laid out a positive vision for the future, where the middle class get a few breaks -- which will be paid for by taking some massive breaks away from, as Bernie puts it, the "millionaires and billionaires." Sanders had one job to do at this debate, and it was to introduce himself and his campaign to a whole lot of Democrats who haven't been paying close attention to the race yet. He easily did so, and got his core message out. Sanders was able to do so for two large reasons: there weren't that many people on the stage, and he is polling so well he's the only other viable candidate on the stage next to Hillary. If either of those things weren't true, the media would likely have relegated him to "ask him two questions, and then shut off his microphone the rest of the time" status (see: Lincoln Chafee).
So we're wimping out in the awards-choosing department this week, and we're awarding a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week to both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for their strong debate performances this Tuesday. It'll be another month before they debate each other again, but so far they both have shown America why they're running and why you should get excited about their campaigns. Well done, to both Clinton and Sanders.
[We don't as a rule link to campaign websites. We realize Bernie Sanders is a sitting senator and therefore there is a non-political contact link we could give (so you could let him know you appreciate his efforts), but we consider this to be an unfair advantage when also giving Hillary Clinton an award, so you'll have to search contact info for both candidates this week, sorry.]
There were three clear losers from this week's debate. Lincoln Chafee looked and sounded a bit lost on the stage, and likely didn't do his campaign any good at all. Jim Webb never adequately answered why he's running as a Democrat, since many of his positions are a lot closer to Republican ideas. Oh, and he killed a guy in 'Nam, there was that, too.
But the third loser of the debate was not Martin O'Malley (the other guy on the stage), but a man who wasn't even there -- Vice President Joe Biden. Biden's "maybe I will, maybe I won't" act is getting a little old, even among the breathless "journalists" who have been hyping the Biden story all week, in sheer desperation for political conflict among Democrats. "Biden entering the race would make it so much more interesting to report on," they all sadly tell each other, to no avail (at least, as of this writing). Biden remains coy.
This coyness is, as noted, getting pretty stale, which is why we're going to give the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award to Joe this time around. Biden massively disappointed CNN, who actually had a podium ready just in case he showed up at the last minute. The Biden-watch got completely ridiculous, with reporters camped out outside the gates of Biden's house in Delaware. They even followed him to a local sporting event, where he laughingly refused to talk to them.
Biden is also disappointing his own supporters -- those who would whole-heartedly support him if he ran. He's broken through a number of his own self-imposed deadlines for making his mind up (which started with "the end of the summer"), and fatigue is setting in even among those who would enthusiastically vote for Biden.
Biden is also (obviously) disappointing Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and their legions of supporters. The race right now is pretty clear -- a two-candidate contest with clear divisions between their agendas. Biden getting in would complicate this, although nobody can confidently say exactly how. Biden would take support from both candidates, although perhaps more of them from Clinton's camp. Would this make it easier for Bernie, or Hillary? Nobody really knows.
Biden's coyness is injecting uncertainty into a situation that should be getting firmer, not squishier. You can almost imagine a future news story, two months down the road, beginning: "As the Democratic candidates prepare for their third debate during the Christmas shopping season, the big question on everyone's lips is whether Joe Biden will surprise everyone by jumping in the race."
Now, we're not taking a position here on whether Joe Biden should make a third run for president. The decision is entirely up to him. But we are getting more and more disappointed in the waiting game. Which is why Joe Biden is the clear choice for the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award this week.
It's time to put up or shut up, Joe. Being coy was fun for a while, but it's now gotten old. If you are ready to run, then say so. If you are going to sit it out, we need to know that too. But at some point (which many would say we've already reached) your continued refusal to commit begins to hurt your party as a whole.
[Contact Vice President Joe Biden on his White House contact page, to let him know what you think of his actions. Or lack thereof.]
Volume 366 (10/16/15)
As promised, we're scrapping our normal format today to examine all the talking points from the Democratic debate. When you think about it, the concept of debating is really nothing more than duelling talking points, trying to score points off of a clever turn of phrase, backed up by the facts. So how could we attempt to come up with our own Democratic talking points this week, when there were so many Tuesday night? We're going to review the ones we chose (and even though this was long, we had to pick and choose among many others which were probably equally worthy of discussion), in the order they were uttered. Some benefited the candidates who spoke them, some had exactly the opposite effect. For those interested, a full transcript (where we took these quotes from) is available on the Washington Post website. The only editing of any comments we did was to fix minor typos and to remove extraneous interruptions by other candidates or the moderators.
The first good talking point of the night was delivered by Hillary Clinton. When asked "are you a progressive, or are you a moderate?" Clinton answered:
I'm a progressive. But I'm a progressive who likes to get things done. And I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground, and I have proved that in every position that I've had, even dealing with Republicans who never had a good word to say about me, honestly. But we found ways to work together on everything from reforming foster care and adoption to the Children's Health Insurance Program, which insures 8 million kids. So I have a long history of getting things done, rooted in the same values I've always had.
Look for that "I'm a progressive who likes to get things done" line to become a staple of the Clinton campaign. She positions herself as a pragmatic progressive, to set herself apart from Bernie Sanders (or Elizabeth Warren, for that matter).
Bernie Sanders had the next notable moment, when asked by the great-great-great grandson of one of the biggest robber barons in American history (Cornelius Vanderbilt) what this whole "calling yourself a socialist" thing was all about. When asked if he didn't consider himself a capitalist (again, by a scion of the Vanderbilt family), Sanders answered:
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? No, I don't. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.
This will obviously be an issue for Sanders, so it was good to see he had a reasonable answer to the charge. Look for this answer to get even sharper, as his campaign progresses.
This brings us to the first talking point which had a negative effect. There were many moments during the evening when Democratic viewers wondered just what the heck Jim Webb was talking about, none more so than the first. In the middle of an answer defending himself against a 2006 quote (calling affirmative action "state-sponsored racism") Webb came out with the following:
And as a clarification, I have always supported affirmative action for African-Americans. That's the way the program was originally designed because of their unique history in this country, with slavery and the Jim Crow laws that followed. What I have discussed a number of times is the idea that when we create diversity programs that include everyone, quote, "of color," other than whites, struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian mountains, we're not being true to the Democratic Party principle of elevating the level of consciousness among our people about the hardships that a lot of people who happen to be have -- by culture, by the way.
Jim Webb, champion of white people... Democrat? Wow. We know he's from Virginia and all, but what is this, 1963? Democrats haven't really tried the "Southern Strategy" since then, so it's absolutely baffling for Webb to make the attempt in this day and age.
OK, moving right along, Hillary Clinton got in a good shot (pun regretted) at Sanders over gun control. She opened herself up to an immediate attack by doing so (anyone on the stage could have thrown it back at her as "the Iraq War authorization wasn't all that complicated either"), but nobody picked up on it. This was the strongest back-and-forth between Clinton and Sanders all night. When asked if Bernie Sanders was "tough enough on guns," Clinton responded:
No, not at all. I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose 90 people a day from gun violence. This has gone on too long and it's time the entire country stood up against the NRA. The majority of our country supports background checks, and even the majority of gun owners do. Senator Sanders did vote five times against the Brady bill. Since it was passed, more than 2 million prohibited purchases have been prevented. He also did vote, as he said, for this immunity provision. I voted against it. I was in the Senate at the same time. It wasn't that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America. Everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers. And we need to stand up and say: Enough of that. We're not going to let it continue.
Martin O'Malley had one of his best moments of the night during this exchange, again at Bernie's expense. After Sanders used the "my state is rural, gun control doesn't sell well there" defense, O'Malley reinforced his earlier statement of his own record in Maryland ("We passed comprehensive gun safety legislation, not by looking at the pollings or looking at what the polls said. We actually did it.") with possibly the best answer he had all night.
Have you ever been to the Eastern Shore? Have you ever been to Western Maryland? We were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas. And we did it by leading with principle, not by pandering to the NRA and backing down to the NRA.
Later on, Lincoln Chafee did bring up Clinton's vote for the Iraq War (after Bernie Sanders called the war "the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country"), but she was prepared for such criticism and answered back:
Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.
Clinton makes a good point, and she makes it well.
One thing worth mentioning in here somewhere was Webb's worst showing of the night, which happened over and over again throughout the evening. Webb tried a losing trick -- attack the moderators for not allowing him equal time. He kept repeating "I've been waiting for over ten minutes" in various ways. Someone should tell Webb that in today's television debate world, the only way for a minor candidate to get extra time is to just jump in (preferably with a snappy talking point) and say it, over the moderator's objection.
Clinton was eventually asked about her emails and the Benghazi committee, naturally, and she used the ammunition the Republicans had so thoughtfully provided:
But let's just take a minute here and point out that this committee is basically an arm of the Republican National Committee. It is a partisan vehicle, as admitted by the House Republican majority leader, Mr. McCarthy, to drive down my poll numbers. Big surprise. And that's what they have attempted to do. I am still standing. I am happy to be part of this debate.
Again, obviously a rehearsed line, but Clinton did a great job delivering it. The Clintons have a long history of fending off partisan right-wing attacks, and they've done so pretty spectacularly in the past. Clinton reminds us of this and her "I am still standing" might have been her best line of the night.
Of course, this directly led to Bernie Sanders's best line of the night. Sadly, the meat of his answer -- which quite rightly puts the blame on the media themselves -- has mostly been cut out of the endless loops of debate highlights, but it's worth hearing his response to Clinton in full:
Let me say -- let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails. You know? The middle class -- Anderson, and let me say something about the media, as well. I go around the country, talk to a whole lot of people. Middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we're going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens Union. Enough of the e-mails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.
Lincoln Chafee was then invited to attack Clinton over her emails and her ethics and credibility, which he gladly did. Anderson Cooper then asked Clinton if she'd like to respond, and she brilliantly left it at "No." Lincoln Chafee, to be blunt, is a candidate nobody's worried about. The crowd seemed to agree, and applauded Clinton's refusal to engage with Chafee.
The question of "Do black lives matter or do all lives matter" was brought up to a few of the candidates, starting with Bernie Sanders. Sanders, obviously, has had time to improve on his handling of the whole "Black Lives Matter" movement. His answer:
Black lives matter. And the reason -- 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, major reforms in a broken criminal justice system in which we have more people in jail than China. And I intended to tackle that issue. To make sure that our people have education and jobs rather than jail cells.
Bernie's was the strongest statement of the night on the issue, in fact.
The debate eventually turned to Wall Street, breaking up the big banks, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Bernie had the strongest position on the stage on this issue, and Clinton gave one of the weakest answers of the night in response:
I respect the passion and intensity. I represented Wall Street, as a senator from New York, and I went to Wall Street in December of 2007 -- before the big crash that we had -- and I basically said: "Cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors."
I took on the Bush administration for the same thing. So I have thought deeply and long about what we're gonna do to do exactly what I think both the senator and the governor want, which is to rein in and stop this risk.
And my plan would have the potential of actually sending the executives to jail. Nobody went to jail after $100 billion in fines were paid.
Hoo boy. Not only does she brag about representing Wall Street, she veers off into a strange story of how she -- completely ineffectually, obviously -- gave those Wall Street bankers a strict talking-to. Bernie pounced on this one, and got off another masterful talking point:
In my view, Secretary Clinton, you do not -- Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress. And we have gotta break off these banks. Going to them and saying: "Please, do the right thing" is kind of naive.
"Wall Street regulates Congress" -- classic Bernie! Look for that in a Sanders television ad, coming soon.
Clinton, at one point, gave an answer that can only be described as "Clintonian." On her shifting position on the Keystone XL pipeline, Clinton said:
You know, we know that if you are learning, you're gonna change your position. I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.
We don't know about anybody else, but that made us cringe.
Speaking of cringe-worthy, Lincoln Chafee had his worst moment of the night when asked about the bill overturning Glass-Steagall. Here's the exchange, with moderator Anderson Cooper:
Q: Governor Chafee, you have attacked Secretary Clinton for being too close to Wall Street banks. In 1999 you voted for the very bill that made banks bigger.
LINCOLN CHAFEE: The Glass-Steagall was my very first vote, I'd just arrived, my dad had died in office, I was appointed to the office, it was my very first vote.
Q: Are you saying you didn't know what you were voting for?
CHAFEE: I'd just arrived at the Senate. I think we'd get some takeovers, and that was one. It was my very first vote, and it was 92-5. It was the...
Q: Well, with all due respect, Governor...
CHAFEE: But let me just say...
Q: ... what does that say about you that you're casting a vote for something you weren't really sure about?
CHAFEE: I think you're being a little rough. I'd just arrived at the United States Senate. I'd been mayor of my city. My dad had died. I'd been appointed by the governor. It was the first vote and it was 90-5, because it was a conference report.
This was perhaps Cooper's finest moment of the night, as he reacted quickly when he realized the candidate had walked into a wall, and immediately called him on it.
Sanders then had a good run, getting in succinct answers explaining his proposals for free public college for all (and why it is morally justified to make this investment) and his plan to expand Social Security (where he got in a subtle dig at President Obama):
When the Republicans -- when the Republicans in the Congress and some Democrats were talking about cutting Social Security and benefits for disabled veterans, for the so-called chained CPI, I founded a caucus called the Defending Social Security Caucus. My view is that when you have millions of seniors in this country trying to get by -- and I don't know how they do on $11,000, $12,000, $13,000 a year -- you don't cut Social Security, you expand it. And the way you expand it is by lifting the cap on taxable incomes so that you do away with the absurdity of a millionaire paying the same amount into the system as somebody making $118,000. You do that, Social Security is solvent until 2061 and you can expand benefits.
Sanders also had good moments when it was noted he was the only one on the stage to vote against the Patriot Act, and when he vowed to shut down the NSA surveillance programs that infringe on our constitutional rights. But one of his best lines came when asked to explain what he meant about bringing "revolution" to American politics. Bernie was ready for this question, obviously:
What I mean is that we need to have one of the larger voter turnouts in the world, not one of the lowest. We need to raise public consciousness. We need the American people to know what's going on in Washington in a way that today they do not know. And when people come together in a way that does not exist now and are prepared to take on the big money interest, then we could bring the kind of change we need.
Hillary, towards the end, got in a good line of her own, when asked why Democrats should "embrace an insider" like Clinton:
Well, I can't think of anything more of an outsider than electing the first woman president, but I'm not just running because I would be the first woman president.
As a talking point, that's pretty superb. Political junkies tend to sneer at the whole "first woman" thing, thinking to themselves smugly "that was a thing back when she ran in 2008, it's not a big deal now." They couldn't be more wrong. "First woman" is going to generate an immense amount of excitement for Clinton during the campaign, and her answer perfectly encapsulated this.
Both Clinton and Sanders got a moment to shine on the subject of family leave (where they largely shared the same sentiments), and then there was a round of "who is the biggest political enemy you've made" (with a bizarre answer about a Vietnamese soldier he killed, from Jim Webb).
But the crowning moment of the night -- a brilliant answer that, if scripted in advance, shows an amazing amount of forethought -- came when Martin O'Malley delivered his closing statement. Again, if this wasn't ad-libbed, it certainly sounded like it was:
I am very, very grateful to have been able to be on this stage with this distinguished group of candidates tonight. And what you heard tonight, Anderson, was a very, very -- and all of you watching at home -- was a very, very different debate than from the sort of debate you heard from the two presidential Republican debates. On this stage -- on this stage, you didn't hear anyone denigrate women, you didn't hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn't hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief. What you heard instead on this stage tonight was an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward.
Brilliant! Although Clinton tried multiple times during the debate to turn the discussion to the vast differences between Democrats and Republicans on all sorts of issues, O'Malley's closing comment did so much more effectively than anything Clinton said.
OK, that's it for the debate rundown. If you've read this far, I congratulate your stamina. We probably won't give subsequent debates the full-on treatment we did today, but we did feel it was important to parse the first Democratic debate of the season. Next week, we'll be back to normal, and then in two weeks we'll have our special Hallowe'en "scary stories for left and right" edition (a yearly tradition for us, complete with Jack-o-lanterns!).
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