Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


After debate, the Democratic race looks like it comes down to Clinton vs. Sanders

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shaking hands during Tuesday night's debate in Las Vegas.

As far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom formed quickly and overwhelmingly an hour after the conclusion of Tuesday night’s five-way debate among Democratic presidential candidates.

I’ve been around long enough to know that the conventional wisdom, especially when that CW is formed off first impressions, doesn’t always hold up. But I offer only caution about excessive certainty, not much disagreement with the main elements of the instant CW which had the following elements:

  • Former Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island were both dead men walking even before last night and their fate was confirmed, according to the CW.

  • Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was the only one among the lower-polling group who, it was thought, had some potential to become relevant with a great performance. The CW says he didn’t get that done.

  • Every card-carrying Commentariat member that I heard agreed that if Vice President Joe Biden was hoping for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to blow it so badly last night that he (Biden) would have to ride to the rescue, that didn’t happen. The big futurists mostly seemed convinced that the promise or threat of a late-start Biden candidacy was down to a fading glimmer.

  • Bernie Sanders’ line (“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails… Enough about the emails…”) was the official moment-that-will-be-remembered from this debate. The focus groups holding dials that measured the second-by-second reactions of ordinary Democrats to the debate on both CNN and Fox were Off The Charts when Sanders said what he said.

Top Sanders campaign official Tad Devine said on CNN that the line was not planned, but I’ll remain skeptical on that. The instant analyzers seemed to think it was a great moment for both Sanders and Clinton, although if the above crumbs of Conventional Wisdom are correct — and with O’Malley failing to break through and Biden unable to get in, we are now down to a two-person field — it’s a little hard to see how anything can really be that great for both Sanders and Clinton.

The raves about Clinton’s performance were less about anything she said and more about how she seemed. “At ease,” “comfortable,” and she seemed to avoid gaffes. Her best one-liner, according to the analysts (and not including Sanders’ line above, which was widely hailed as a great gift to Clinton) was about one of her weak spots — her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.

Chafee voted against the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Sanders, who was in the House at the time, not only voted against the 2002 authorization but last night called the decision to attack and invade Iraq  “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.” Webb, although he wasn’t in a position to vote on it, publicly expressed skepticism in a prescient Washington Post op-ed piece.  

Clinton’s vote for the war, contrasted to Barack Obama’s public opposition to it, was a key reason she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008 and she had not, until recently, acknowledged that the vote had been an error. But when Chafee was roughing her up over it last night, Clinton came up with this, almost-certainly-planned riposte about whether she could be trusted as commander-in-chief after that vote:

“Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times, with then-Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.”

That one elicited an ovation, although the precise logic is a little strained.  

Fire and oratorical flair

Her other big moment, in which she displayed more fire and oratorical flair than we usually see from Clinton, occurred when advocating for a federal requirement that all employers provide paid leave to mothers to care for sick children. CNN’s Dana Bash, who had asked the original question, interjected that “even many people who agree with you might say, ‘Look, this is very hard to do, especially in today’s day and age.’ There are so many people who say, ‘Really? Another government program? Is that what you’re proposing? And at the expense of taxpayer money?’”

Replied Clinton:

“Well, look, you know, when people say that — it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave. You can’t provide health care.’ They don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it.

“You know, we can do these things. We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that,’ except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it, because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done.”

Sanders’ main point, last night and ever since he got into the race and really for years before that, was the maldistribution of wealth and power in America. Yes, he calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and he isn’t running away from the term. The CW was and remains that there’s only so close a self-styled socialist can get to the presidential nomination of one of America’s major parties. Still, while he doesn’t shrink from the “s” word, he seized every opportunity to steer from the questions he was asked last night to answers about his main topic.

For example, when the chief moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, challenged Sanders to explain how anyone who calls himself a socialist could possibly be elected president  of the United States, Sanders replied:

“Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is about.

“And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

“That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.”

Note: When Sanders says “every other country on Earth,” he actually is referring to the developed world.

When Cooper asked whether Sanders considered himself any kind of capitalist, he replied: “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.”

When the topic was climate change, Sanders said: “Let me also tell you that nothing is gonna happen unless we are prepared to deal with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change…”

Wall Street bailout

Sanders also voted against the humongous Wall Street bailout of 2008, a vote that occurred as members of Congress were told that U.S. economy was possibly days away from collapse. The bailout passed anyway but Cooper brought up this vote to ask: As president, would you stand by your principles if it risked the country’s financial stability? Sanders replied:

“I remember that meeting very well. I remember it like it was yesterday. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson and [Federal Reserve Chair Ben] Bernanke came in, and they say, ‘Guys, the economy is going to collapse because Wall Street is going under. It’s gonna take the economy down with them.’

“And you know what I said to Hank Paulson? I said, ‘Hank, your guys — you come from Goldman Sachs. Your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends paying for the bailout, not working families in this country?”

“So to answer your question, no, I would not have let the economy collapse. But it was wrong to ask the middle class to bail out Wall Street. And by the way, I want Wall Street now to help kids in this country go to college, public colleges and universities, free with a Wall Street speculation tax.”

And just one more example. Sanders: “In my view, Secretary Clinton,… Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”

Over on Fox, Frank Luntz was running a focus group, all of whose members were Democrats. According to him, during the debate there was a big shift, from a majority that favored Clinton to a bigger majority that favored Sanders.

O’Malley’s closing comment

Although O’Malley probably didn’t change the race much, I thought he had the best closing statement, at least for an audience of Democrats — and perhaps some non-Democrats — who have been stunned and horrified by the quality of the discussion in the Republican debates so far. Here’s what O’Malley said:

“I am very, very grateful to have been able to be on this stage with this distinguished group of candidates tonight. And what you heard tonight, Anderson, was a very, very — and all of you watching at home — was a very, very different debate than from the sort of debate you heard from the two presidential Republican debates.

“On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.

“What you heard instead on this stage tonight was an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward, to move us to a 100 percent clean electric energy grid by 2050, to take the actions that we have always taken as Americans so that we can actually attack injustice in our country, employ more of our people, rebuild our cities and towns, educate our children at higher and better levels, and include more of our people in the economic, social, and political life of our country.

“I truly believe that we are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress. Unless you’ve become discouraged about our gridlock in Congress, talk to our young people under 30, because you’ll never find among them people that want to bash immigrants or people that want to deny rights to gay couples.

“That tells me we are moving to a more connected, generous, and compassionate place, and we need to speak to the goodness within our country.”

This was the first debate of the Democratic field. If all goes according to plan, there will be five more before the nomination contest is over. It’s possible, assuming the new Conventional Wisdom is correct, that many of them will be one-one debates between Sanders and Clinton.

The Washington Post, by the way, produced a cool instant annotated transcript of last night’s debate, with quickie fact-checks and other commentary embedded.

Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Bill Kahn on 10/14/2015 - 11:04 am.

    What about the missing candidate? I don’t mean Joe Biden. I mean Lawrence Lessig.

    Big money from a fraction of the top one percent controls it all, including Mr. Black, apparently.

    President Bernie Sanders hasn’t a prayer against them, and President Hillary Clinton almost belongs to them.

    Without Larry Lessig’s Citizen’s Equality Act of 2017, we don’t have a prayer of getting our democracy back.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/14/2015 - 04:29 pm.

      And the only chance Larry Lessig has of seeing the inside of the White House is on a guided tour.

      It’s really hard to take seriously a “candidate” whose platform is that he secure passage of his campaign finance and electoral reform legislation, then resign.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2015 - 01:22 pm.


      he’d better spend some of that money to let the electorate know who he is and what he’s proposing.

      I took a look at Harvard’s faculty info — it appears that Lessig’s position on the faculty was purchased for him by a few rich donors (he holds an endowed chair). Are they the one’s now funding his political foray?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/14/2015 - 01:27 pm.


    I Googled him–
    The fact that he says that he’s a candidate doesn’t make him one.
    Before he can propose legislation he’s got to be elected to something.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 10/14/2015 - 04:28 pm.

      Not exactly

      Unelected groups & individuals propose legislation all the time.

      The problem for Lessig is that he’s viewed as a vanity or stunt candidate. While the GOP is open to those types, it seems the dems aren’t interested in playing that game.

    • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 10/14/2015 - 05:15 pm.

      He raised more money from individuals in a month than two guys on that stage did in their whole campaigns so far and he doesn’t qualify to debate because he hasn’t polled high enough in polls that don’t even mention him?

      If you googled him and respond as you do, you ignore the fact that he has been championing this issue for years and now has a formidable campaign team. Lincoln Chafee didn’t poll any better and has a minuscule fraction of Lessig’s contributions so far, yet he managed to get on that stage and embarrass himself. CNN and the DNC are hypocritical and dishonest in excluding Lessig.

      Larry Lessig is the only serious candidate in the race because he knows you have to return us to a working democratic republic to fulfill any campaign promise. None of the others are telling you that fundamental truth.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/14/2015 - 02:28 pm.

    HC or BS -who can run fastest to the far left with their walkers

    It was a boring debate, filled with pure spin by the candidates and now the “journalists.”

    Each true candidate was trying to out-spend and out-tax the other and provide the greatest amount of “free stuff” to excite the far-left democratic special interest groups and create even a larger dependent class.

    Mr. Black will next announce that a “democratic socialist” is a true “moderate deficit hawk.”

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/15/2015 - 10:23 am.


      No one called anyone a “loser.”

      No one made sexist remarks.

      The whole debate focused on policy. The candidates treated one another with respect.

      What a pity it couldn’t have been more like the Republicans, right? Maybe next time they could do something exciting, like acting out that time they had a gun pointed at them at Popeye’s.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 10/16/2015 - 08:50 pm.


        I firmly remember many of the candidates vilifying that upper 1% often and caustically… And often offering to be Robinhood if the downtrodden would just vote for them.

        Finally they were happy to give that “booty” to anyone who was listening, whether they were an American citizen or someone who was in the country illegally, It was incredible how generous they were going to be with other people’s money…

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/18/2015 - 03:30 pm.

          My Heart Bleeds for the 1%

          It is hard to imagine a more put-upon group in America, isn’t it?

          My reference was actually to how the candidates spoke to or about one another. Yes, it was terrible TV. Better hair, but nowhere near as exciting.

  4. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 10/14/2015 - 03:53 pm.

    Lessig has raised more money than Webb and Chaffee combined and doubled (and that’s counting Chafee’s self-funding). He’s certainly a second-tier candidate, but should have been on the stage last night.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/14/2015 - 06:11 pm.

      Webb and Chaffee

      are not serious candidates.
      They (like Lessig) are using their 15 minutes of national attention to make statements and hope that lightning will strike.
      What has Lessig ever done that would lead someone to think that he could get Congress to pass the legislation that he is proposing? Sounds like a national Ole Savior.

      • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 10/14/2015 - 09:25 pm.

        Yeah, right. Great analogy. Ole Savior raises the local equivalent of a million dollars and is excluded from debates.

        Wrong. If Savior had cash and a campaign someone besides him understood, he’d probably start looking like a serious candidate to voters. It would not hurt to be a Harvard Law School professor, I suppose, with a national reputation.

        Or maybe Mr. Brand, you have something in common with those who would maintain the corrupt status quo:

        “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,” said Ghandi.

        Larry Lessig is right about our democracy: it is broken. He’s said it on Bill Moyers’ Journal. He’s said it on the Daily Show. He’s said it to anyone who would listen and he has sought out candidates to run to fix our government.

        Everyone, absolutely every politician is so vested in the corrupt campaign machine that derails our government from working for anyone who does not pay copious amounts of cash. Everyone but Lessig, and hopefully a landslide majority of voters come November 2016, is so caught up in the corruption that there really is only one choice.

        Some folks may not want to hear that we have lost our democratic republic, but most folks know it is true.

        The question should be, What candidates are attempting to advance any way to repair our country? There is only one, and it ain’t Sanders or Clinton.

        Larry Lessig is for real and it is past time to take our national problem seriously and solve it.

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/14/2015 - 11:13 pm.


          He’s running a campaign for an office he doesn’t want, pushing an issue he has yet to show how he can affect in any way, and refuses to announce whom his president-in-waiting will be. I don’t care if he’s a certified genius, he’s a single issue candidate, with miniscule funding, who has no chance of success in this race. If he’s so serious about making his political point (which is a valid one btw) run for office in the House, or perhaps the Senate and actually build some cache. Like it or not, that is how the game works, you don’t win by shouting from the sidelines about how unfair the rules are. You win by putting yourself in the ring, at a level at which you can actually compete, and attacking the problem from the inside, once you actually command some measure of power. That he is unwilling to put in the effort to do so speaks volumes about how committed he is to his cause. Its wonderful that he thinks its up to him and him alone to save us, but he’s hardly the only candidate to speak to the evils of campaign finance. The difference is that those other folks actually have a chance of accomplishing their goals.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2015 - 09:03 am.

            A much more thoughtful reply

            than Lawyer Lessig deserves.

          • Submitted by Bill Kahn on 10/15/2015 - 08:12 pm.

            Go on Lessig’s Website and choose a VP, Matt.

            I chose Obama, but any Democrat in line or polling well for Prez would do for me.

            It does not matter, we just need to fix our democracy first.

            • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/16/2015 - 09:12 am.

              Two centuries

              It’s been over 200 years since the Vice President was elected separately from the President.
              Right now, it’s the presidential candidates job to name a running mate.
              Maybe Lessig ought to read the Constitution — teaching a course in Constitutional Law apparently isn’t enough.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2015 - 09:00 am.

          Democratic republic

          From Wikipedia:

          “A democratic republic is, strictly speaking, a country that is both a republic and a democracy. It is one where ultimate authority and power is derived from the citizens, and the government itself is run through elected officials.

          However, in recent practice, countries that have described themselves as democratic republics have not always held free or fair elections. Two examples of this were the German Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, communist states commonly known as East Germany and North Vietnam.[1] Another is the Democratic Republic of the Congo which in 2011 was rated by Freedom House as a “not free” country, having a rating of 6.0 (1.0 being completely free and 7.0 being completely unfree).[2] Also, the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’, commonly known as North Korea, is rated the least democratic in the world, run by a dictator. A republic is a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote.”

          Which one is your model?

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/15/2015 - 11:07 am.

          Before you quote Ghandi

          I’d suggest that you take a look at the state of India today;
          it’s the world’s biggest failed democracy.
          From an historical perspective, Ghandi accomplished very little; the British were in the post WWII doldrums and rolling up their empire across the globe. They would have pulled out of India with or without Ghandi.

  5. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/14/2015 - 09:28 pm.

    Thanks Eric…

    Much better analysis then others I have endured oops read ! You point to other pieces of the discussion debate then others both foreign and domestic. The Luntz commentary but still continuing the venue and source it originates from missed attention in what I have gleaned from the sources I have tapped. The Washington Post’s poll I believe where this entered my brain would suggest that the growing statistical groups have the least difficulty with having a socialist in office.

  6. Submitted by joe smith on 10/14/2015 - 11:35 pm.

    The debate came down to who could vilify the wealthy and promise more “free” stuff to the most Americans. Not much substance as to how they were going to get folks off the Govt dole and get them good paying jobs. I guess when you think hamburger flippers should get 15 bucks an hour and act like earning 28,000 dollars a year is “making it” and walla you are middle class, you’ll say anything. Totally out of touch, headlined by a Bernie who claims he is an DC outsider who has never had a private sector job in his 70 plus years and Hillary who wants to fight for the middle class while banking 100M plus off the system she claims she wants to change.

    • Submitted by katie sabin on 10/18/2015 - 02:00 am.

      The debate came down to who

      You really need to research Bernie yes he has had a job he was a carpenter at one time. He always put in a bill to cut their wages not once but twice. He is for the working people and poor,. He think the billionaires and CEO’s should pay their fair taxes and wants to fix the loopholes on Wall Street.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/15/2015 - 03:04 pm.

    I’m shocked

    I don’t know who else is running for the democratic nomination but I was SURE they’d be the final contenders after this debate.

  8. Submitted by Mike Davidson on 10/15/2015 - 02:47 pm.

    O’Malley The Big Surprise

    Clinton and Sanders both performed beautifully. Neither made any real gaffes, both came across as likable and well-presented in their ideas. While I was pleased with both their performances, the one surprise of the night to me was Martin O’Malley. Sure, it seemed pretty easy for him to separate himself from Jim Webb (not really a Democrat) and Lincoln Chafee (also not really a Democrat), but O’Malley presented his case with style and substance and held his own with Clinton and Sanders. I look forward to seeing more from him.

Leave a Reply