At the latest Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton didn’t have the bravura night that she did last month in Las Vegas. Bernie Sanders tried to stick to his message as much as he could even as the Paris terrorist attacks overshadowed all else. And Martin O’Malley tried his best to show he was a viable, and bit younger alternative to his rivals.
More than anything, the second Democratic debate, from Drake University in Des Moines and broadcast on CBS News, magnified the contrast that the left has with the right, starting with words.
As GOP candidates rushed to make an issue of calling the Paris attacks a work of Muslim extremism, Clinton refused to paint “with too broad a brush” and referred to it a “jihadi extreme terrorism.” Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio refused to commit to raising the minimum wage; Democrats debated just how high it should go. Then there is gun control, immigration and climate change.
Sanders, ridiculed on the right for labeling “climate change” the greatest world threat in the last debate, went further this time, connecting it to what is happening with ISIS, saying that its effects are “directly related” to terrorism.
This debate also showed the skills of “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson held generally tight control over the proceedings and was deft at followups, particularly at the start when the focus was on the Paris attacks.
Here are the five most memorable moments from the debate:
ISIS. All of the candidates condemned the attacks in Paris, with Sanders pledging that “this country will rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS.” Clinton said that “we need to have a resolve that will bring the world together to root out the kind of radical jihadist ideology that motivates an organization like ISIS.” O’Malley said it was the “new phase of conflict and warfare in the 21st century.”
It was no surprise that candidates would be asked about ISIS, but Clinton’s answers showed both her advantages in the Democratic primary and potential vulnerabilities in the general election. Pressed twice by Dickerson on whether the Obama administration underestimated the threat of ISIS, she instead cited the continued regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and the troubled government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq as destabilizing the region.
She also was asked about the chaos in Libya after she was a champion of intervention to defend rebels toppling Muammar al-Gaddafi. Clinton noted that Gaddafi had more “blood on his hands” of deaths of Americans than anyone else, justifying the decision to intervene. She also said that the regime change led to democratic elections, but Republicans are likely to invoke the well-worn “Benghazi” to try to characterize it as a failed policy of her tenure as Secretary of State. The risk they have, though, is explaining what they would do differently when it comes to further military action in the region.
She did try to show that she has a much weightier grasp of the nuances and complexities of the region than her rivals. Sanders criticized in general U.S. action for “regime change,” which he said have “unintended consequences.” But after he pointed out that other countries in the Middle East needed to step up to fight ISIS, Clinton said he was being unfair to include Jordan, which has taken in a great deal of the Syrian refugees.
And Clinton did make a point of saying that ISIS must be defeated, not contained, in what may be an effort to diverge from the Obama administration’s strategy up to now.
‘Carnival barker’: O’Malley helped himself with a number of memorable lines, something he needed in a campaign that has too often fallen off the radar screen in the Clinton-Sanders rivalry. He chided Clinton for her positions in the gun debate, calling her “Annie Oakley” at one moment and saying, “There is a big difference between leading by polls and leading by principle.” He also called her Wall Street reform plan “weak tea.” But he got the most attention for characterizing Donald Trump as an immigration-bashing “carnival barker.” That earned him not just a Twitter spike, but a response from Trump, who called O’Malley “a clown.” That will help O’Malley in post-debate talk, ever important as Democrats scheduled this event, for some reason, on a Saturday night, the lowest viewed night of the week.
‘Impugn my integrity’: In their biggest exchange of the evening, Sanders and Clinton sparred over Wall Street, with Sanders suggesting that no candidate who collects campaign money from big banks and hedge funds can escape their influence, while Clinton defended her plan for reform, including a pledge to break up the big banks “if they don’t play by the rules.” “Not good enough,” Sanders said in response. At one point, she accused Sanders of trying to “impugn my integrity,” before launching into an explanation of her contributors that emphasized Wall Street’s connection to 9/11.
“I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked,” she said. “Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”
The answer was puzzling, to say the least. CBS News’s Nancy Cordes later picked up a comment from Twitter as a followup: “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”
Clinton responded, “Well, I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild.”
Sanders had the most to gain from the exchange, and he perhaps made some strides in answering to the “Democratic socialist” label by noting that the top tax bracket under President Dwight D. Eisenhower was 90%. “I’m not as much of a socialist as Eisenhower,” he said. Ike is a pretty popular figure now, as Trump invoked his name at the GOP debate earlier this week when talking about his deportation plan.
Gun control: All of the candidates are for tougher gun safety measures, but this debate showed the lengths of which each is trying to show differences in their levels of commitment. Clinton noted that since the last debate in Las Vegas, nearly 3,000 Americans have been killed by guns. She hit Sanders for his gun control record, noting that he “had a different vote than I did when it came to giving immunity to gun makers and sellers,” while Sanders said that he would be able to build consensus on gun violence issues.
“We’ve got consensus. What we’re lacking is political leadership,” Clinton said.
O’Malley tried to outflank both of them, but he too came under criticism for his record, as Sanders said that it was “fair to say that Baltimore is now one of the safest cities in America.”
As much as there may be discord on the issue, gun control groups are actually pleased that the issue is being talked about in a debate at all — and that the argument is over who has the better record on the opposite side of the NRA.
Those damn emails: Sanders accused the media of ginning up the notion that he was backing away from his complaints over the attention to Hillary Clinton’s emails. “I was sick and tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s emails. I am still sick and tired of hearing about Hillary Clinton’s emails,” he said.
Clinton responded, “I agree completely.”
Asked whether she can assure that another shoe wouldn’t drop over the emails, she responded, “I think after 11 hours, that’s clear.”