Dem Debate: Candidates Fumble on Global Terrorism

Democratic presidential hopefuls failed to offer a clear path on defeating Islamic extremist terrorism at a time the world witnessed the brutal murder of 129 innocent citizens in the City of Paris Friday night.

Bernie Sanders devoted 37 words to address the horrific series of terrorist attacks, before shifting to his campaign theme of fighting income inequality. “Let me concur with you and with all Americans who are shocked and disgusted by what we saw in Paris yesterday. Together, leading the world, this country will rid our planet of this barbaric organization called ISIS,” Sanders said at the start of the 2nd Democratic presidential debate aired on CBS News.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also offered her prayers are with the people of France, but said that is not enough. “We need to have a resolve that will bring the world together to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates organizations like ISIS, a barbaric, ruthless, violent jihadist terrorist group,” said Clinton. “This election is not only about electing a president. It’s also about choosing our next commander-in-chief. And I will be laying out in detail, what I think we need to do with our friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere to do a better job of coordinating efforts against the scourge of terrorism. Our country deserves no less because all of the other issues we want to deal with depend upon us being secure and strong.”

She also took an indirect dig at President Obama, who on Friday suggested that the threat of ISIS has been contained. “I think that we have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network. It cannot be contained, it must be defeated,” Clinton stated.

Former Governor Martin O’Malley gave the longest and most detailed statement on the matter. “There is no nation on the planet better able to adapt to this change than our nation. We must able to work collaboratively with others,” he asserted. “We must anticipate these threats before they happen. This is the new sort of challenge, the new sort of threat that does, in fact, require new thinking, fresh approaches, and new leadership. As a former mayor and a former governor, there was never a single day when I went to bed or woke up without realizing that this could happen in our own country. We have a lot of work to do, to better prepare our nation and to better lead this world into this new century.”

But despite the sympathetic tone, the three Democratic presidential hopefuls failed to offer a clear foreign policy vision as to how to deal with the chaotic Middle East and global terrorism. During the 20 or so minutes discussing foreign policy issues, Clinton refused to use the term “radical Islam.”

“I don’t think we’re at war with Islam. I don’t think we’re at war with all Muslims,” she said. “We are at war with violent extremism. We are at war with people who use their religion for purposes of power and oppression. And, yes, we are at war with those people. But I don’t want us to be painting with too broad a brush.”

O’Malley took the middle road, naming it “Radical jihadis,” using the term Hillary used at the beginning of the debate as she called for global “resolve” to “root out the radical jihadist ideology.”

The former Maryland Governor passed on an opportunity to stand out when asked to address his inexperience in a dangerous world. “The world is a very dangerous place, but the world is not too dangerous of a place for the United States of America, provided we act according to our principles, provided we act intelligently,” O’Malley responded. “As Americans, we have shown ourselves to have the greatest military on the face of the planet, but we are not so very good at anticipating threats and appreciating just how difficult it is to build up stable democracies, to make the investments and sustainable development that we must as a nation if we are to attack the root causes of these sorts of instability.”

A behind the scenes drama preceded the live-on-TV statements.

The Sanders campaign fought back on Saturday against CBS changing the format of the debate in the wake of the Friday night terror attacks. “Last night’s attacks are a tragic example of the kind of challenges American presidents face in today’s world, and we intend to ask the candidates how they would confront the evolving threat of terrorism,” CBS News Washington bureau chief Chris Isham said in a statement Saturday morning.

But according to Yahoo News’ Hunter Walker, an aide to Sanders threw a fit when the campaigns were informed about the changes. “Once CBS informed the campaigns the debate was going to kick off with a focus on the attacks in Paris last night, he (Mark Longabaugh, a Sanders strategist) completely lost it. He threw a fit for several minutes,” a source who was on the conference call was quoted as saying. Longabaugh claimed that “this wasn’t part of the deal. It shouldn’t be allowed. It wasn’t advertised as a foreign policy debate, and it’s turning into a debate it wasn’t supposed to be.”

Representatives for Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley’s campaigns were okay with the change, a CBS source said.

Speaking to reporters at the venue of the debate, Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver said the network wanted to cut the opening statements from 90 seconds to 30 seconds to get right to questions about the Paris attacks. “They wanted to make some last-minute changes to the debate. We obviously wanted to keep the format to what had been agreed to, and I think people on our staff argued vigorously to that and were successful,” Weaver told CNN. “We ended up prevailing,” said Weaver, who added that Sanders went over Paris-specific questions Saturday morning.

A post-debate poll commissioned for a pro-Hillary Super PAC showed that  75% of Democrats who watched the debate say they have the most faith in Clinton on national security issued, compared to only 17% for Sanders, and 5% for O’Malley.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.