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Caucus Roundup Opinion

The Democratic Debate: Sensation-less Substance


The absence of Donald Trump brought much more reasonable, policy-minded debate to the first debate of the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, but somehow without the candidates insulting each other or making up meaningless tangents, it felt more like eating your vegetables than the chocolate cake.

That is not to say that there were not important and poignant moments of this first debate. Certainly, Lincoln Chafee, in a Sisyphean effort to rise from obscurity, made jabs at Clinton; Sanders rose above any divisive fray in his characteristically determined manner to focus on the issues; others vied for attention in the noticeably smaller field.

One of the most confusing things attentive viewers may have noticed is Jim Webb. Although he has at best a single percentage point in Democratic primary polls, Jim Webb is making a meager effort to create name recognition for himself. The attribute most likely to be noticed about him by those following his comments is that he is a Republican in a Democratic Debate.

Having served as Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, supporting tougher border restrictions, criticizing the Iran nuclear agreement, and condemning Obama’s use of executive orders, Webb seems like he missed his exit when looking for the last debate in Simi Valley, California and somehow ended up in Las Vegas instead but then decided to make the best of it. At one point, Webb discouraged doing anything about climate change, because China and India pollute more and should be the ones taking action.

Ironically, this is almost exactly what Marco Rubio advocated at the Values Voters conference several weeks ago when he said, “There are other countries that are polluting in the atmosphere much greater than we are at this point. China and India, they’re not going to stop doing what they’re doing.”

Anderson Cooper repeatedly asked Webb if his views were “out of step” with the Democratic Party. Despite his assurances, it was difficult to not compare his responses to the others in the field.

Lincoln Chafee, on the other hand, proudly emphasized his record in sharp contrast to Hillary Clinton’s. Chafee, the most assiduous supporter of the metric system in the 2016 field, contradistinguished himself by saying that he voted against the Iraq War in the United States Senate and has never been involved in any scandals. Chafee said that, “we need someone that has the best in ethical standards as our next president.”

Although these diatribes gained him some ground, probably only centimeters of it, questions by Anderson Cooper set him back kilometers. When asked about banking reform and his voting record, Chafee said, “Glass-Steagall was my very first vote. I had just arrived. My dad had died in office. I was appointed to the office. It was my very first vote.” Such an answer obviously insinuated that he had not paid close attention to his actions in the prestigious position of U.S. Senator but decided that he would cast a vote on a major piece of legislation anyway. When Anderson Cooper brought up that point, Chafee gave the milquetoast rebuttal, “I think you’re being a little rough.”

If Chafee had not already been counted out, he could be with such a weak defense of his voting record especially after he had critiqued Clinton’s Iraq War vote.

Martin O’Malley did a satisfactory job of appearing presidential at most points in his speech, but he did little to make an impression. He enjoyed some laughs when he called Donald Trump a “carnival barker in the Republican party.”

When the topic of conversation switched to gun control, everyone, including O’Malley, went on the offensive against Bernie Sanders. Only Jim Webb supported more conservative gun control policies. Although Bernie Sanders laid out his stance supporting assault weapons bans, extensive background checks, mental health check-ups, and gun show loophole closures, Clinton was swift to say “No, he isn’t” when asked if he was tough enough on guns.

However, Clinton referenced that polls showed a majority of Americans support assault weapons bans and background checks, and O’Malley took the prime opportunity to lambaste her. O’Malley said that he had implemented assault weapons bans in Maryland without checking the polls, because he knew it was the right thing to do. O’Malley also used gun control as a wedge issue and cited his animosity with the National Rifle Association as the nemesis he is most proud to have made.

Sanders, on the other hand, eschewed this sort of divisive language. Instead, as he always has, he wants to remain focused on the issues. When Clinton’s continuing email scandal inevitably came up, Sanders responded that the American people are “tired of hearing about your damn emails!” In another moment of politically inadvisable kindness, Sanders thanked Jim Webb for his service to his country.

Sanders had the chance to voice his position on gun control, even though it may not have been as aggressive as other candidates. He also emphasized his prescient vote on the Iraq War in the Senate and how he said at the time such an invasion would have a “destabilizing effect” on the region. Sanders was also able to bring up the fact that in a 99-1 vote, he was the single, solitary Senator who voted against the Patriot Act.

Supporters of Sanders see this as a big win for him, but of course, supporters of Clinton see the night as a victory lap.

After months of circling a scandal-ridden drain, Clinton returned with exuberance and preparation. Haranguing the Republicans on government intervention in reproductive rights and Sanders on gun control, allowed her some moments when she put herself a step above the rest of the field.

Anderson Cooper never ceased to ask her difficult questions. At one point, he said, “In all candor, you and your husband are part of the one percent, how can you credibly represent the middle class?” Her response was utterly forgettable. When Cooper entered in to a conversation about the email controversy she has become embroiled in, she replied that she has been as “transparent as I know to be.”

Her standard, unsatisfactory responses were saved only by Sanders when he commented to Clinton, that the American people are “tired of hearing about your damn emails.” She also gave a lackluster response when asked to clarify the tangible differences between her and Obama but could only say that she would be a woman, which she has embraced as one of her major selling points to Democratic voters.

Clinton also kept more to the center with her policies. She offered a defense of entrepreneurial capitalism, declined to endorse legalizing recreational marijuana, and stood by the Patriot Act and a harsh sentence for Edward Snowden.

Obviously, only Clinton and Sanders came out of the debate with any significant attention, but that was always bound to happen. The others scramble for scraps from the adults’ table, but although Sanders still has a smaller portion at that table than Hillary, he intends to earn every morsel rather than steal from her plate.

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