Daily Maverick’s rather weary America watcher, J. BROOKS SPECTOR, got up really early to watch the third US presidential candidates debate, this time among five Democrats. Despite the early hour, he came away from the television broadcast strangely happy about the political scene in America.
After two rather ugly Republican candidates’ debates with their large, unwieldy horde of nearly a dozen squabbling, biting and scratching folks on stage, even if you are not a Democratic Party-leaning voter, it was a relief to watch five people engage in a civil discussion about issues that was, largely, high on specifics and low on bombast. Really.
There was even a moment where Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave a real, and probably unexpected, shout-out for Hillary Clinton over the “great email scandal”, telling their Las Vegas, Nevada audience, and millions more via television and video streaming, that the country doesn’t need to hear one more word about those “damned emails” (the private server that hosted Hillary Clinton’s personal emails while she was secretary of state) to some sustained applause. Instead, he went on to say that what the country really needs is a serious, sustained discussion over the country’s real – pressing – economic issues.
This debate, much more than might have been expected a few months ago, was largely a colloquy between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders as they tussled over American involvement in the Middle East, gun control and economic policy in the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night. When the debate had first been scheduled, Clinton and her campaign staff had probably assumed that such a debate would have been rather close to her coronation as the nominee.
But, surprisingly vigorous support for Sanders among the party’s traditional liberal wing and among students over his economic message had clearly upended that calculation. As a result, the betting line on the debate became one of whether or not Clinton could hold her own, and then build up her own message that while there is a need for economic reforms, yes, they should come in the hands of a seasoned political pro who knows how to work the machinery and how to get things done, rather than someone who can posture dramatically.
For example, after Senator Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, had castigated the “casino capitalist process by which so few have so much,” Clinton retorted that it would be a “big mistake” for America to reject the very system that had built America’s middle class in the first place. Moreover, she took also the attack to Bernie Sanders, pointing out his rather mixed record on gun control legislation (he has previously rejected putting legal responsibilities on gun sellers, saying he had not been tough enough on the issue.)
As the debate turned towards foreign policy, Clinton set out a more interventionist, more robust stance than Sanders, positions largely consistent with her stances as secretary of state and as a senator before that. Specifically, she reiterated her support for more robust American action to help end the Syrian civil war (and some tougher talk to Vladimir Putin). In this, she defended her judgment more generally, despite having voted for that accursed 2003 invasion of Iraq. By contrast, Sanders labelled that Iraq war as “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country”. When he said he would not support sending American combat troops back to the Middle East to fight terrorism, Clinton interjected, “Nobody does, Senator Sanders.” And when asked how her administration would differ from that of fellow Democrat Barack Obama’s two terms of office, Clinton used that opportunity to underscore her potential place as the country’s first female leader, saying, “Being the first woman president would be quite a change.”
Throughout the debate, besides Clinton and Sanders, there were three other candidates in the room – former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator James Webb, and former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee. During the event, Webb and Chaffee increasingly seemed to fade into the woodwork, and they had difficulties making a cogent case for their nominations. O’Malley had a somewhat better time of it, positioning himself as a left-leaning, but successful governor who had achieved many of the kinds of things Sanders is talking about, during O’Malley’s time as a governor. Based on Tuesday night’s performance, and given his stance snugly to the left of Clinton, he may well have improved his standing somewhat for consideration as a potential vice presidential candidate with a Clinton nomination for the presidency.
During the debate, Hillary Clinton’s largely engaging, confident performance has probably eased anxieties among her supporters who have been muttering about her campaign’s handling of the email controversy that has dogged her in recent months. Now, in upcoming congressional hearings over the deaths of a US ambassador and three staffers in Benghazi, Libya and Clinton’s presumed circumstances during the tragedy, she now may well have an opportunity to push further along the lines of argument she set out in this debate.
This will be especially true in the wake of comments by a leading Republican, California Representative Kevin McCarthy, that the hearings were a way to weaken her candidacy. Or, as the AP noted, “For Clinton, the debate was a much-needed opportunity to focus on policy in addition to the controversy over her exclusive use of personal email and a private Internet server during her tenure in the Obama administration. The email issue has shadowed her rollout of numerous policy positions and has hurt her standing with voters.”
Still, there was a particularly important, invisible elephant in that Las Vegas hall Tuesday night, and that, of course, was the possibility Vice President Joe Biden will decide he wants to make one more run to become president. As the AP commented after the debate, “Biden has been deliberating about his political future for months and is expected to announce a decision within days. Debate host CNN kept an extra podium on standby in case he decided to show up, but the vice president instead stayed in Washington, where he was watching the debate at his residence. He was not mentioned during the two-hour debate.” And some analysts have already opined that Clinton’s performance had now left little room for a Biden bid, especially given that a late start that would handicap his ability to raise funds to support an actual candidacy.
Across the partisan aisle, meanwhile, Donald Trump, the current leader in the Republican tussle, had earlier promised to be all over this Democratic debate, even if he wasn’t in the room. He released a flow of tweets such as, “Sorry, there is no STAR on the stage tonight!” – although there were few zingers in that flood, and some observers were saying it seemed as if his heart wasn’t really in it after all.
Over the generally emotive issue of immigration, in contrast to the Republican debates, the five Democratic candidates were largely in step with each other over providing a path to legal status for those millions of people now in the U.S. illegally. The general argument was that immigrants made the country what it is and a way needs to be found to sort out the current snarl. Moreover, Democrats are strongly hoping for significant support in the general election from Hispanics, a group that overwhelmingly voted for Obama in 2012 and that is understood to be strongly in favour of ta path to legalisation of immigrant status for those who are now undocumented aliens.
With regard to policy consistency, replying to comments by James Webb about her shifting positions, Clinton said, “Like most human beings, I do absorb new information, I do look at what’s happening in the world.” Especially with regard to her newly announced opposition to the newly announced Trans-Pacific Trade Pact, an agreement she had supported while secretary of state, Clinton argued she had eventually decided it didn’t meet her standards for trade deals. Senator Sanders has consistently been opposed to this agreement, as well as a number of other international trade deals.
Senator Sanders spent considerable energy trying to define himself as a democratic socialist who wants to roll back the power and resources in the hands of those “too big to fail” mega-banks; to create tuition-free opportunities for students at all of the country’s public universities; to provide for the extension of Medicare to all Americans (thereby achieving a single payer national health plan); and to fund the expansion of Social Security by extending the taxes that pay for it to all earned income, rather than only up to a cut-off line above a certain annual income figure, and other economic messages. Still, socialism remains something of a bugbear in American politics for many, despite the fact that he has clearly struck a nerve with his anger against the wealth concentration and Wall Street’s machinations.
Watching the debate early in the morning in South Africa, this writer felt a real echo of his union-organising, late grandfather who had never met a big boss or greedy capitalist he didn’t fundamentally distrust. The problem is that Sander’s call to the barricades can have a retro quality of a curiously 1930s feel to it when he gets too wound up, and his approach could well be chewed up once the discussion over policy measures becomes more specific.
In last night’s debate, he slid the discussion into a rather infra dig conversation about the evils of the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act more than fifteen years ago. Glass-Steagall was a product of the New Deal that had kept the investment banking arms of the big banks firmly separated from their custodian role of commercial banking, and that many believe had major hand in the financial crisis of 2008-9. Sanders’ fixation on these kinds of issues may eventually sap energy from his campaign as he tries to build beyond his left-liberal-student base. This could be especially so, given a recent survey showing Americans would be more favourably inclined to vote for Muslim president than a socialist one (although the fears of a socialist are significantly dependent on age – the younger the respondents are, the less socialism was seen as a detriment).
Without question, Tuesday night’s debate set a high bar for public debates – there are still many more to come. This performance will, hopefully, force all candidates in both parties to rise to the challenge of speaking both civilly and seriously about policies and choices, rather than engaging in the kind of verbal Punch and Judy show that was the predominant image of the first two Republican debates. It is even possible Tuesday’s debate will help elevate political discourse more generally. Well, we can always hope. DM
Photo: (L-R) Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee during the US Democratic Presidential candidates debate at Wynn Las Vegas in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 13 October 2015. EPA/JOSH HANER / THE NEW YORK TIMES / POOL