Let’s face it; there are no windbags on the Democratic side who can blow as hard as either The Donald or Chris Christie. None of the five Democrats in last night’s debate appeared capable of producing anything endearingly weird like Carly Fiorina’s “Demon Sheep” commercial or the responses to the State of the Union, where Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal did spectacular pratfalls. The first Democratic Party presidential debate lacked the entertainment value the Republicans demonstrated.
You could easily look at the stage and say former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb was on the right and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was on the left—give or take an issue. The Republican debate stage was a veritable totem pole on the right as they all scrambled to avoid being the slightest bit to the left of the pack, as if moderation were kryptonite.
You could tell former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the establishment candidate last night even if you did not know who raised the most money. Of course, that was probably true of Jeb Bush in the Republican debates, since he was the only one who hesitated to light his hair on fire.
Nobody claimed we ought to fear immigrants or African-Americans. Nobody questioned that the Great Recession was born on Wall Street, but they disagreed on what to do about it. Nobody questioned that climate change is a fact and it is a threat, but they disagreed on what to do about it.
Perhaps the best piece of theater in the debate was Bernie Sanders on one side and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on the other side of Hillary Clinton shouting at each other over gun control while Clinton laughed uproariously.
The subject of Clinton’s emails naturally came up but did her no serious harm. The exchange helped Bernie Sanders and made Former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chaffee look foolish. Sanders interrupted the questioning, looked at Clinton, and rumbled, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” He went on to complain that there was important stuff to talk about and while he basked in an ovation Clinton shook his hand.
Chaffee stepped in it when given the opportunity by moderator Anderson Cooper to follow Sanders to solid ground; he instead tried to compare Clinton’s emails to the Bush Administration’s deception about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It was lame. Everyone knew it was lame and Cooper asked Clinton if she wanted to reply?
“No.” She got a big laugh.
Bernie Sanders’ best line of the night was, “Congress doesn’t regulate Wall Street; Wall Street regulates Congress.”
Sanders brought every question around to class warfare the same way Lindsey Graham in the Republican debates brought every question around to the need to double down in Iraq and Afghanistan, invade Syria, and be prepared to invade Iran if bombing them does not do the job.
Asked to identify the greatest threat to U.S. national security, Chaffee and O’Malley picked pieces of the Middle East fiasco. Clinton said nuclear proliferation, a clever answer that could be read as a proxy for Iran, demonstrating her ability to walk the tightrope between the highly partisan studio audience and the general election audience she may face later. Should the Iran nuclear deal go south, she anticipated it. If not, she’s on the record with a “high road” answer that’s above criticism. Webb said China, but the immediate military problem is the above-mentioned Middle East fiasco. Sanders said climate change.
Sanders and O’Malley were strongest on climate change, with O’Malley committing to a 100 percent clean electric grid, adding, “We didn’t put a man on the moon with an ‘all of the above’ strategy.”
Webb referred to nuclear power as “safe” and “clean.” Unfortunately, nobody asked him why no nuclear plant can get insurance on the private market if it’s so safe and clean.
In response to Sanders’ proposal to make public colleges free, the moderator asked whether the taxpayers should pay to educate Donald Trump’s kids. With all the hemming and hawing, you’d think they were filming a cough drop commercial. Nobody pointed out the obvious: rich people’s kids aren’t going to public schools. On a hunch, I checked where the candidates in the debate last night went to school.
Among them, the five candidates have nine college degrees. The only public schools represented are the U.S. Naval Academy (Webb), Montana State (Chaffee, who studied to be a farrier, a skill not taught in the Ivy League), and the University of Maryland (O’Malley’s law degree). Even the socialist Bernie Sanders went to the University of Chicago, a private school.
Gimmick questions tend to fall flat, but Anderson Cooper scored when he quoted FDR’s remark about being judged by the enemies he had made and asked the candidates what enemies made them most proud?
Chaffee: the coal lobby.
O’Malley: the NRA.
Clinton: the NRA, health insurance companies, drug companies, and Republicans.
Sanders: Wall Street and Big Pharma.
Webb: the enemy soldier who threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around….
The primary cause of the Great Recession in the law was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act firewall between commercial banks that serve ordinary people and investment banks that engage in high stakes gambling with other people’s money.
The only candidates who seemed willing to rebuild that firewall that served us so well since we got it from FDR were Sanders and O’Malley. Unfortunately, few people watching the debate had a clue about Glass-Steagall and why it is important. Therefore, odds are we get to bail out the investment banks again. Why not take risks when you are too big to fail?
On foreign policy, the big deal for most Democratic voters is who will get us out of the wars we are in, while the Republicans differed over where we should start new ones. Efforts to nail Sanders for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War fell flat. Not even war hero Webb would bite. It appeared that everybody would bring the troops home yesterday except Webb and Clinton.
Clinton did better with her “prevent” defense—competing not to lose—than most people expected, and in that sense she won. Her best line was one that set her apart from Sanders, “We need to save capitalism from itself.”
Sanders got the opportunity for millions of Americans to learn they can listen to a socialist without their ears falling off. It would not be surprising to see him spike a bit in the polls.
Chaffee—the only candidate on the stage to utter the words “Native Americans” in a list of people he wanted to serve in his closing statement—made enough missteps to tank his numbers, if he had any numbers to tank.
O’Malley set himself up as a contender for vice president or a fall-back candidate if one of the salvos from the Great Right Wing Conspiracy ever hits below Clinton’s water line.
Webb set up his political shop substantially to the right of the Democratic base but still way too far left for the Republican base. He’s a good man, too good to fake his positions, and his real positions just have no home in either party. It’s not his time.
I normally cover the debates with my Republican cousin Ray Sixkiller, but that old boy couldn’t stay awake long enough to even make jokes. He probably had that in common with most voters.