Top 7 takeaways from the second Democratic presidential debate

by Russell's Rants

Originally published November 15, 2015

0557d334ad1187ab8d3c199c9e745c58The three remaining Democratic contenders for their party’s presidential nomination met for their second debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa this evening – a mere 24 hours following the horrific ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris. Appropriately the debate started with a moment of silence for those killed and injured in France, which foreign policy event also framed the first number of questions of the debate. Domestic and especially economic policy questions soon followed, and from the beginning it was quite clear that the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, had to defend her positions against attacks against her by both Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley.

Here are my top 7 takeaways from the verbal sparring.

1.  Hillary was the only one playing both a long and short game.

She had to say enough to seal the Democratic nomination without compromising her ability to win against the Republican nominee in November. She has no intention – like Jeb! Bush – of losing the primary in order to win the general. She took some hits from the left – with Sander’s trying to fashion her as the senator from Wall Street in both economic policy and receipt of campaign contributions. But Democrats have much more nuanced differences in policy than do the Republicans, so Clinton has moved just far enough left to blunt Sanders without losing her general electability. While Sanders and O’Malley favor a raise in the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Hillary was okay at $12 with annual cost of living increases. Bernie wants free college tuition; Hillary wants college to be debt free. And while O’Malley and Sanders want to reinstitute the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act and break up the big banks, Clinton said she was open to it but had a more comprehensive plan to deal with all banks, not just the big ones. And she was able to site some big liberals, like economics Nobelaureate Paul Krugman and ex-Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, who agree that her plan is tougher on the industry as a whole by buttressing the Obama era Dodd-Frank regulations (on capital requirements and derivatives) and cracking down on “shadow banks” like Lehman Brothers. And when Bernie tried to embarrass her with contributions from Wall Street, Hillary was able to say to loud applause that 60% of her contributions were from women – a non sequitur, but an effective one for someone running to be the first female president.

2.  Republicans won’t be able to criticize Hillary for not labeling terrorism as emanating from radical Islamists

This is a common rightwing critique of President Obama, who does not wish to play into al Qaeda and ISIS’s desire to frame the conflict as a “religious war” or tar all Muslims with terrorism. The president calls them “violent extremists.” In her opening statement, however, Clinton said that our prayers for France are not enough and called for “root[ing] out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS. . . .” If that weren’t clear enough, she went on to explain that we are not at war with “all Muslims,” but with “Islamists who clearly are also jihadists.” Take that Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio!

3.  The era of big government has not quite returned

Sanders and O’Malley explained that they would pay for their new spending proposals with some new, higher taxes. For O’Malley, that means taxing capital gains at the same, higher rate at which earned income is taxed. For Sanders, that means an increase in the income tax rate (only promising the top marginal rate would not exceed the 90% rate under Eisenhower). “I’m not a socialist compared to Eisenhower,” said Sanders to laughter. Clinton was having none of this talk of raising taxes. She echoed that other Clinton – Bill – saying, “I have made very clear that hardworking, middle class families need a raise, not a tax increase.” A shout-out to Donald Trump would have been perfect at this point, given that he claimed wages were too high and need to be lowered at the last Republican debate.

4.  Clinton made up for her admittedly wrong vote in favor of the Iraq war by showing her command of foreign policy.

While Sanders again gave Clinton a pass on her Benghazi e-mails, he didn’t on her Iraq war vote – indeed tying the unintended consequences of regime change to the very problems we are now seeing with ISIS in the region. A good and timely point. Hillary deflected the attack by saying that each country “needs to be looked at individually and analyzed” and then presenting tutorial on Iraq, Syria, Russia, Hezbollah, Egypt, Jordan and the Sunni-Shia divide. She was, after all, the secretary of state and can speak fluently on all issues foreign – even if she didn’t enunciate a broad ideological doctrine. If the political zeitgeist does turn more hawkish following the Paris attacks, Hillary can remind the electorate, as she did this evening, that she differed from Obama on Syria by her early support for arming the moderate rebels (and could also have pointed to her proposal for a no-fly zone over the country). O’Malley and Clinton got into a semantic difference when she said the fight to defeat ISIS needs our Arab and Kurdish allies and American leadership but “cannot be an American fight.” He begged to differ, saying it “actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies.” O’Malley probably phrased it better, but they were pretty much saying the same thing.

5.  CBS News, which hosted the debate, has high production values

John Dickerson, who recently took over as the moderator of “Face the Nation” also moderated tonight’s debate. His questions, and those of the panel of journalists, were sharp, relevant and almost all on policy – with the exception of those “damn” e-mails that were asked about in one late round. The set looked good. And the camera angels and movement were dramatic. I need to tune into CBS on Sunday mornings more often.

6.  O’Malley continued to position himself as next in line

He’s an incredibly attractive and polished candidate. Like Marco Rubio on the Republican side, O’Malley gives crisp, well-organized answers, but unlike Rubio his policy prescriptions actually make sense. His resume as the former governor of Maryland and mayor of Baltimore is impressive. And he did a good job of trumpeting his executive accomplishments in Maryland, from criminal justice reform to tax and spending reform. He also had one of the best lines of the night he contrasted the Democratic debate with that “immigrant bashing carnival barker” Donald Trump. O’Malley’s the one to watch in 2020 if Hillary loses this time around.

7.  Twitter gave the candidates instant feedback

As the debate ended, John Dickerson cut live to an offstage correspondent monitoring Twitter. Interest spiked for Clinton’s comments about 60% of her contributors being women; for Sanders with the Eisenhower tax rates; and for O’Malley with his Trump putdown. When the camera came back live to the candidates, they all seemed happy with the Twitter results. Trump naturally responded immediately on Twitter, calling O’Malley a “clown,” which tweet will likely be worn as a badge of honor.

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