Thoughts after Saturday night’s Dem debate:
They scheduled it for a Saturday night, which seems like a declaration that they didn’t want much of an audience (although I stayed home to watch, which tells you something about me).
Then its turn came around just after the world decided that the race for the Dem nomination is about over (Bernie Sanders says otherwise, but the recent polling is daunting).
It lacked the cast of (what for want of a less impolite term) we’ll call the colorful characters featured on the Repub side, a cast that — whenever it includes Donald Trump — seems to generate record ratings. (If the Dems’ goal was low ratings, the plan worked.)
Then Paris happened. And so, for all these reasons, Saturday’s debate was overshadowed.
CBS, which aired the debate, took an instant reaction poll and announced the results Sunday morning. Who won? Hillary Clinton 51 percent; Bernie Sanders 28 percent; Martin O’Malley 7 percent, which was pretty darn close to the last whom-do-you-support poll taken before the debate, which makes me think most people stood by their preferences, perhaps because not much happened that would change their preferences.
Personally, I heard little that was new, and the dumb-but-memorable moments that debate watchers live for were not much in evidence.
The early rounds were all about Paris/ISIS. Sanders called ISIS a “virus” and said we must “rid our planet” of it, but nothing very memorable about how to do that, except he said more than once that the Muslim nations of the Middle East have to do more (again with no clear suggestion of how he, if he becomes president, will get them to step up). Asked to defend his previous statements that global warming/climate change is the greatest threat to the world, Sanders suggested that climate change is one of the factors generating ISIS, which may be a bit of stretch.
Clinton made a tiny speck of news by saying that ISIS cannot be “contained” and must be destroyed, which set off analyses that she was contradicting President Obama, who has previously said ISIS has been “contained.” But if you look at the whole thing, you may conclude there is no real there there, since the Obama statement really referred to the size of the territory controlled by ISIS, not its ability to sneak a few murderous thugs into France.
Iraq war vote
Sanders also invoked his vote against the war in Iraq, saying that the Iraq war (which Clinton did vote to authorize) was a key factor in the chain of events leading to the rise of ISIS. To me this is undeniably true, and Clinton didn’t really dispute it. Clinton said (as she has in the recent past) that her vote was a mistake. She has not said (nor did she Saturday) nearly enough about how she came to make that mistake and what lessons she might have learned for the future.
Sanders expanded on his anti-Iraq war vote, saying that the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein was part of a long chain of U.S. “regime change” projects all over the world. He added: “These toppling of governments, regime changes, have unintended consequences. I would say that on this issue I’m a little bit more conservative than” Clinton.
Clinton didn’t try to defend “regime changes” in general, but said each one needs to be considered individually. Moderator John Dickerson then pressed her on the U.S. role in the Libyan regime change, for which she advocated within the Obama administration. She seemed to argue that it had gone well, while acknowledging “there has been a lot of turmoil and trouble” in Libya in the aftermath, which is an understatement.
Dickerson — who I thought generally did a pretty good job — then caused a waste of several minutes on the dumb question of whether the bad guys should be described by the term “Muslim” or “Islam” or “radical Islam.” This is normally a dog whistle (or does one mean “God whistle?”) used by some on the right to try to make Democrats look like weenies because they believe that using “Muslim” or “Islam” in these context is unhelpful if it comes across as blaming the Islamic faith (and alienating potential Islamic allies) for the violence.
Clinton said we are at war with “violent extremism.” O’Malley said those who claim to be killing in the name of Islam are “perverting the name of a great world religion.”
I suppose that an incident like the attacks in Paris is generically bad for Democrats (because Republicans are better at talking tough) and for whichever party is in power (which, again, comes up bad for Dems). But let’s move on to other issues that were discussed Saturday night.
Sanders wants to raise taxes considerably on the “millionaires and billionaires” whom he often references. But when he was asked what the top marginal tax rate should be, he slipped away with a double-punch-line joke, saying that he didn’t yet know that number but that it would be less than the 90-percent marginal tax rate during the Eisenhower administration (1953-61). Then, having promised to hold the top rate under 90, Sanders added: “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.”
But really, when will he divulge the marginal tax rate on the highest incomes and the most profitable businesses that would be necessary to pay for his various ideas?
Sanders also talked about how much support Clinton has received from Wall Street during her career, and implied that the Big Cigars have bought her loyalty. She said he was “impugning my integrity” and wrapped the mantle of the 9/11 attacks around her. Sanders certainly was implying something, but he wasn’t ready with a specific vote she had cast or favor she had done. Their main concrete difference seemed to be about whether the big banks should be broken up. Sanders said yes.
Sanders wants to raise the minimum wage by federal mandate, not immediately but in steps over the next few years, to $15 an hour (which he calls, on every occasion, “15 bucks an hour”). He believes this basically ends poverty for anyone with a full-time job. O’Malley agrees, saying based on the experience of signing a state minimum-wage increase in Maryland (to $10.10/hour), that it stimulated economic growth. Clinton, citing the analysis of economist Alan Krueger, said that $15/hour is too high, but she favors $12/hour.
They talked about this for a while, and the differences began to fade. For me, the differences bordered on irrelevant because the current federal minimum wage is $7.25/hour, and most Republicans (including most of the Repub presidential candidates, who were asked about it at their most recent debate) are opposed to raising it at all.
In the real world, a world that includes the current level of gridlock and Republican control of both houses of Congress, I’m not sure the difference between Clinton’s $12/hour and Sanders/O’Malley’s preference for $15 amounts to much. One of the great shortcomings of the debate in general is that there was too little recognition of the complications — represented by the expressed disagreement of Republicans for most things Democrats would like to do — presented by Republican control of Congress.
Sanders obliquely alludes to this with his frequent talk about using his candidacy to spark a “political revolution” by engaging many Americans who do not now participate in politics. Maybe so. But our system is awfully gridlock-prone and determined parties are able to frustrate the plans of even determined majorities (and, of course, no such determined majority exists at present).
O’Malley, by the way, joined Sanders in the general drift of his populist policy proposals and in his use of sarcastic humor. He called, for example, for “the elimination of one big entitlement that we can no longer afford as a people. And that is the entitlement that many of our super wealthiest citizens feel they are entitled to pay, namely a much lower income tax rate and a lower tax rate on capital gains. I believe capital gains for the most part should be taxed the same way we tax incomes from hard work, sweat and [unintelligible word here]. And if we do those things, we can be a country that actually can afford debt-free college again.”
(For more, here’s a transcript of the entire debate.)