Dem Debate Recap

The five Democratic presidential candidates finally made it to prime time, after months of dominance by the 15 Republican candidates.

In the two-hour debate, aired on CNN and live streamed online, the Democratic hopefuls refrained from going after each other, although there were stark differences between the frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, and the insurgent, Bernie Sanders, especially on gun control and wall street reform.

Overall, it was certainly less entertaining than the two Republican debates (thank you Donald Trump), but this is largely only relevant to the extent there’s a potential Joe Biden’s candidacy. While the debate didn’t make for great TV, Bernie Sanders seemed to lose some of the energy he has shown on the trail.

Clinton has been criticized a bunch for seeming robotic and scripted — two things Joe Biden has never been accused of — but overall she came across as comfortable and quick on her feet.

In one instance, Sanders even came to Clinton’s defense when she was pressed, once again, about her private email server. “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,” Sanders roared, setting off an outburst of applause. “Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”

Why did Sanders play so nice on the email issue?

Maybe he thinks it’ll help primary voters who are on the fence see him as a serious candidate focused on governing and not tearing down the character of his opponents. He certainly won “mensch points” among Democrats for this, but will it help him gain votes? Not necessarily. But then again, it’s highly doubtful that attacking Hillary Clinton’s integrity and trustworthiness would help him.

The line he could’ve walked would’ve been neither attacking nor defending her, but saying that such a distraction would hurt the Democrats in a general election and increase the chances of a Republican in the White House.

The candidates didn’t seem to disagree a lot on foreign affairs, but their answers to a question about U.S. policy in Syria and the use of military force did demonstrate a stark leadership style between the candidates.

When asked about Putin’s incursion in Syria, Clinton contended that Putin is a hard nut to start off. She listed the accomplishments on the world stage, such as imposing sanctions on Iran or the surge in Afghanistan, as things that were done in cooperation with Russia “when Medvedev was the president and not Putin.”

“There’s no doubt that when Putin came back in and said he was going to be President, that did change the relationship,” she asserted. “We have to stand up to his bullying, and I applaud the administration because they are engaged in talks right now with the Russians to make it clear that they’ve got to be part of the solution to try to end that bloody conflict.”

Sanders, on the other hand, advocated for a less of a leading role when it comes to the U.S. using military force when it does not directly threaten the national security of the U.S. or its allies. “I will do everything that I can to make sure that the United States does not get involved in another quagmire like we did in Iraq, the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country,” he declared. “We should be putting together a coalition of Arab countries who should be leading the effort. We should be supportive, but I do not support American ground troops in Syria.” The Independent Senator also argued against enforcing a no-fly zone in Syria, something Clinton and the Republicans called for because it “could lead to real problems.”

But Sanders did say he is “prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary.”

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who slammed Clinton for calling for a no-fly zone in Syria earlier this week, said he supports President Barack Obama’s policy on Syria. But he got it all mixed up when he suggested that “Assad’s invasion of Syria” will be seen as a blunder. (He obviously meant Putin, since Assad is still the elected leader of that country).

Jim Webb, the only Democratic presidential candidate to oppose the Iran nuclear deal, maintained that the “deal allowing Iran to move forward and eventually acquire a nuclear weapon” sent bad signals into the region “about whether we are acquiescing in Iran becoming a stronger piece of the formula in that part of the world.” This empowerment of Iran enabled Putin to come in and to take the move to protect Assad, he argued. “I believe that the signal that we sent to the region when the Iran nuclear deal was concluded was that we are accepting Iran’s greater position on this very important balance of power, among our greatest ally Israel, and the Sunnis represented by the Saudi regime, and Iran,” Webb stated. “It was a position of weakness, and I think it encouraged the acts that we’ve seen in the past several weeks.

On a side note, this was, by the way, the only time Israel was mentioned during the 2-hour debate.

The Democratic hopefuls also disagreed on what is currently the greatest threat to America’s national security. While Lincoln Chafee cited the upheaval in the Middle East, Sanders pointed to climate change as the biggest national security threat. Only O’Malley and Clinton said the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, along with the threat of ISIL was the greatest national security threat, while Clinton framed it as the “continued threat from the spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear material that can fall into the wrong hands.”

But while the candidates stuck to substance, largely avoiding petty and personal attacks, it seemed that they were all on one page as to who is the common enemy: The Republican Party.

One of the most interesting moments of the night was before the debate, when a short, pre-recorded video of Obama was played, in which he explained how, “together,” “we” made many positive changes in the country:

“I’m not just asking you to work as hard for our party as you did back in 2008 or 2012. I’m asking you to work even harder, knock on even more doors talk to even more of your friends…If we do that then I know that Democrats won’t just win the White House, and Congress, and elections all the way down the ticket…We’ll keep building on the extraordinary progress of the past several years.”

His message set the tone for an evening in which Republicans were the main opponent and in which Sanders, Webb, O’Malley and Chafee barely attacked Clinton. Clinton was stronger on attacking Republicans than anyone else on the stage, but the overall lack of combativeness and divisiveness was a stark contrast to both Republican debates and to a Republican party that is too fractured to swiftly elect a new Speaker of the House.

Clinton took a shot at the Republicans towards the end of the debate when the candidates were asked which enemy they are most proud of in upsetting during their political career. “The Iranians; probably the Republicans,” she said in one breath.

In the end, while the campaigns rushed to declare their candidate as the winner of the debate, the agreement among all was that Clinton stood her ground. She played it by the book without any gaffes or bruises and demonstrated confidence. Webb certainly stood apart on foreign policy, but running to the right of the other candidates and Obama won’t help him jump much, if at all. Meanwhile, O’Malley, who was the most likely to impress, spoke only two minutes more than Webb and had a forgettable performance.

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