COLUMN BY JOHN WINGERT
Who won the Drake debate?
The short answer is: not Clinton. The other two candidates had their ups and downs, but they came prepared to hit Hillary Clinton hard, and they did just that.
In the beginning, Bernie Sanders appeared weaker. He took the opening question about the events in Paris and sidestepped it to go back to his economic agenda, which was the original focus of the debate before the terrorist attack. Sanders showed weakness throughout the foreign policy segment that focused heavily on ISIS.
However, both Sanders and Martin O’Malley were able to critique Clinton for her vote to invade Iraq which Sanders described as “disastrous” and a historic blunder which has led to contemporary instability in the region. O’Malley and all of the candidates agreed that the sources of conflict were numerous and nuanced. All of the candidates also agreed that they needed a coalition of Muslim countries to act against ISIS, but that Islam should not be painted with a broad brush as extremist terrorists. In sum, there were actually few policy discrepancies except for Clinton’s more hawkish suggestion of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.
O’Malley, at one point, was able to criticize the other two for referring to veterans as “boots on the ground,” because he wants to remember the human cost of war, as Sanders later brought up when talking about his work on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and the half a million veterans suffering from PTSD or brain injury.
Although in the last debate Sanders was unwilling to criticize his rivals, this time he brought up what he characterized as “disagreements.” The biggest discrepancy, and a winning argument for Sanders, was campaign finance reform. O’Malley has a Super PAC, but has, so far, been able to raise very little money. Sanders has no Super PAC and touted this above Clinton. Only 13 percent of Clinton’s campaign contributions are in amounts below $200, whereas Sanders has 77 percent of donations below $200. None of Sanders’ donations exceed $2,700, but 27 percent of Clinton’s donations exceed $2,700.
This argument has given Sanders the moral high ground amongst Democratic voters who want to see systemic changes addressed. When confronted on the issue, Clinton said that 60 percent of her donors were women and also referenced having to represent Wall Street on September 11th. Her use of 9/11 was later brought up by Nancy Cordes in the form of a tweet that had been sent out on the issue, reading “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.” Clinton’s response failed to address campaign finance and merely reiterated that she has received many donations.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a surrogate of Clinton’s in the spin room after the debate, told the Times-Delphic “I think she made a very good point on that, that if donations are received, it is not a definition of her character or her willingness to yield to her own values or her conscience, just because a particular interest group gave money.”
However, Sanders characterized Clinton’s response as “not good enough.” He added, that special interests “expect to get something, everybody knows that.”
O’Malley joined in at times to show that Clinton was not leading by her conscience but instead “leading by polls.” He pointed out numerous flip-flops and did a solid job of demonstrating his own successes. O’Malley and his surrogates have taken to an “actions over words” mantra that they hope will show he is a contender. Drake University student Kenia Calderon represented O’Malley in the spin room and said “he has the actions to back his statements up.”
Throughout the debate, O’Malley made a strong display of his record in Maryland of “raised sales tax by a penny and made our public schools the best public schools in America,” raising the minimum wage so “the more they spend, the more our economy grows,” and enacting gun control. He also argued against “polarizing figures from our past” at the national level. O’Malley also pointed out Clinton’s connections to Wall Street and the nefarious effect that could have on her ability to lead when asked about his own finance reform agenda.
However, by the end of the debate, Sanders was able to tie healthcare and other issues back to campaign finance reform fairly successfully. When asked about how he would add regulations to the prescription drug industry when they are a one trillion dollar industry, Sanders said the first step is to ensure that they cannot control members of Congress through campaign contributions.
Symone Sanders, a surrogate for Senator Sanders in the spin room, told the Times-Delphic “Bernie Sanders knows that we live in a rigged economy, and this economy is kept in place by a corrupt finance system.”
“Bernie Sanders is leading from the front on this issue by not participating in this system,” Sanders said.
That seemed to be the winning issue for Sanders. The item that Clinton could not successfully repel turned out to be campaign finance reform. Her mentions of female donors or 9/11 seemed to distract from the matter at hand and did not provide her with the ability to hold back her opponents.
On the other hand, Sanders failed almost completely with foreign policy by refusing to address it from the beginning and then not diving into great detail throughout the foreign policy debate. Sanders was corrected at one point by Clinton about the involvement of Jordan against ISIS, and his only area of military expertise seemed to be veterans’ affairs.
O’Malley succeeded in showing competent responses and providing examples of success from his time as governor of Maryland. He stumbled in his speech at times, but O’Malley seems to have found a better strategy by attacking the words of Washington politicians and contrasting them with his actions as a governor of Maryland. The winnowing of the Democratic nomination to three contenders allowed him the attention he needed.
Clinton had a lot of success leading up to the second Democratic debate by showing a strong performance in the first debate with no attacks from Bernie Sanders, maintaining composure for the 11 hour Benghazi hearing, and demonstrating hegemony through Biden’s refusal to run, but this debate showed that there are discussions and debates still necessary in the Democratic Party. Expect the largest surge for O’Malley, because he had such little support to start with, but also expect Sanders campaign finance agenda to move him upward in the polls even as his foreign policy was lackluster.