With only 5 candidates onstage—as opposed to more than a dozen for Republicans—Democrats appearing in Tuesday’s presidential debate had ample room and time to discuss policy. As predicted, frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders got the lion’s share of attention.
Policy, Not Punches. Joining Clinton and Sanders on stage in Las Vegas was a trio of low-polling candidates looking for a breakthrough moment: former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley; Jim Webb, a former Navy secretary and U.S. senator from Virginia, and Lincoln Chafee, the Republican-turned independent-turned Democrat from Rhode Island.
For Clinton, the debate was a much-needed opportunity to focus on policy in addition to the controversy over her exclusive use of personal email and a private Internet server during her tenure in the Obama administration. The email issue has shadowed her rollout of numerous policy positions and has hurt her standing with voters.
While Chafee said the email controversy speaks to Clinton’s “credibility,” the former U.S. Secretary of State got an unexpected reprieve from her biggest Democratic challenger. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” Sanders said. The crowd roared. “Thank you, Bernie,” Clinton said.
Democrats were largely focused on delivering policy talking points instead of personal attacks. During the two-hour contest, candidates showcased their positions on everything from climate change and college debt, to Vladimir Putin’s attitude.
Clinton said Sanders was too soft on gun control, and stated that, as a U.S. Senator, he voted against all the Brady Bills calling for gun regulation.
Regarding foreign policy, Clinton reiterated her call for more robust U.S. action to stop the Syrian civil war and defended her judgment on international issues, despite having voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Sanders called the Iraq war “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of our country” and said he would not support sending American combat troops back to the Middle East to fight terrorism.
The Black Factor. Black voters are the dominant bloc in the Democratic primary, and the party knows it cannot win without them. In critical states like South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina, blacks make up more than half the primary electorate.
The pervasive presence of #BlackLivesMatter at campaign rallies (including one where two female members of the group took over Sander’s speech) earned a nod on the debate stage. Candidates were forced to discuss institutional racism, police violence against communities of color, criminal justice reform and inequality issues.
Ironically, though Democrats were the first party to elect a black president, no one of color is in the race to the White House. Republicans have an African American presidential candidate for 2016, as they did in 2012.
Who Won? CNN declared Clinton the winner, stating “Hillary Clinton proved without a doubt Tuesday night why she is the Democratic Party's presidential front-runner. Clinton remained unflappable throughout the debate…”
Sander’s status was “unclear.” According to the poll, “Bernie Sanders didn't shock anyone: he played to his base and thrived off the momentum that his insurgent campaign has enjoyed.” His discussion of Blacks Lives Matter “likely didn't inspire voters in the African-American community.”
As for the others, “Martin O'Malley needed a breakout moment and he came up empty…Webb seemed more pressed squabbling with debate moderator Anderson Cooper over the amount of time allotted to the different candidates…The former senator, governor and mayor (Chafee) simply didn't make a lasting impression.”
A place on the podium was set aside earlier for Vice President Joe Biden, who chose instead to watch the debate from his residence. While his bid for the White House remains speculation, CNN noted, “Hillary’s win was Biden’s loss.”
There are 6 debates planned for the Democrats and 12 for the Republicans. The Dems are also planning a forum.