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Democratic debate features drama and substance — all on a night considered a TV-ratings graveyard

Democratic presidential candidates picked apart policies and Donald Trump, but few voters likely watched.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton share a laugh at the start of a commercial break during Saturday night's debate.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

After a weekend of drama and debate, the race for the Democratic presidential nominations seems essentially unchanged. Sen. Bernie Sanders continues to offer a leftier alternative to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton continues to try to look past the primaries and unify the party for the general election. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley continues to present himself as a young but experienced bold progressive, but he can’t seem to get a hearing.

First the drama, which you have probably read about but hasn’t been covered much here. I will try to dispose of in two fat paragraphs:

The DNC (which manages a database for all the campaigns but is supposed to keep the rival campaigns from accessing one another’s proprietary data) messed up its computer security. Some Sanders campaign workers noticed the breach and at least looked at (not clear whether they downloaded) data that belonged to the Clinton campaign. (There’s no indication that Sanders or his top officials were involved.) Sanders fired the main guy who committed the breach and is investigating/considering firing a few others. The breach was fixed. The DNC punished Sanders by locking his campaign out of the database, even though it contains Sanders’ own data, which the campaign needs urgently for its Iowa operations. Sanders sued the DNC, which relented and restored Sanders’ access to his own data. During the debate, Sanders apologized for the incident in general and when asked by the moderator whether he was apologizing to Clinton herself,  said yes, turned to her and said, “I apologize.”

Clinton accepted. The matter seems closed except that it created an opportunity for Sanders-ites and O’Malley-ites to restate a long-standing, mostly-under-the-radar complaint that the DNC and its chair, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have rigged the nomination season to favor Clinton by, for example, scheduling significantly fewer debates than the Republicans, and even scheduling a few of those on Saturday nights, which guarantees a small audience. For comparison, Saturday night’s debate was the third for the Dems (two so far on Saturday nights), compared to five so far by the Repubs (none on a Saturday night). The Dems have three more scheduled (none on Saturdays) and the Repubs have seven more (two on Saturdays).

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That brings us to Saturday night’s debate itself, moderated by and aired on CNN. (The Saturday night before Christmas is apparently considered even more of a ratings graveyard than other Saturday nights.)

Based on the small audience, the general civility of the exchanges (especially compared to the food fights that regularly occur when the Repub field debates), and the familiarity of most of the views expressed, it’s unlikely that this debate changed the race much. (But I don’t really know that, nor do the various pollsters and pundits who opine on such things a bit too often.)

Although it is not new, Sanders managed to bring up three times his vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq in 2002, which Clinton voted for. He said:

“We disagreed on the war in Iraq. We both listened to the information from Bush and Cheney. I voted against the war.”

Clinton, who only last year for the first time characterized her vote to authorize the 2003 bombing and invasion of Iraq as a mistake, did not try to justify or explain the mistake, and I don’t believe she has ever done so fully.

Regime change

Sanders used the Iraq war vote as part of a larger argument about the U.S. policy euphemized as “regime change,” in which the United States arrogates to itself the authority to overthrow, by overt or covert means, the governments of other nations.

Sanders’ critique of “regime change” was mostly that it often results in instability, to the detriment of U.S. interests and to the security of the region in which it occurs. Here’s that quote:

“I think — and I say this with due respect — that I worry too much that Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be.

“Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Gaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS. So I think, yeah, regime change is easy, getting rid of dictators is easy. But before you do that, you’ve got to think about what happens the day after.”

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In his remarks on “regime change,” a topic that cropped up several times, Sanders also reached back to the 1950s when Cold War priorities and U.S. corporate interests contributed to U.S. overthrows of elected leaders such as Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran (if that case means nothing to you, try this link)  and Salvador Allende in Chile.

O’Malley joined Sanders in this critique, saying, for example:

“We shouldn’t be the ones declaring that Assad must go. Where did it ever say in the Constitution, where is it written that it’s the job of the United States of America or its secretary of state to determine when dictators have to go?

“We have a role to play in this world. But it is not the role of traveling the world looking for new monsters to destroy.”

Clinton didn’t talk about the general question of U.S. support for “regime change.” She pointed out that Sanders had cast some votes in the Senate that implied his agreement with the U.S. role in the overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But she continued to subscribe to her position, which is also the Obama administration’s policy, that Bashar al-Assad cannot remain in charge of Syria. Clinton justified this view less on moral grounds, although those were in there, but on a more pragmatic argument that important elements of the U.S. coalition working to defeat ISIS are committed to the removal of Assad.

She made, in passing and without explaining the limits of such thinking, a general claim for the United States to go beyond its narrow interests to take on problems like Assad when she said:

“If the United States does not lead, there is not another leader. There is a vacuum. And we have to lead, if we’re going to be successful.”

Target for Republicans?

Of course, the issue of U.S. policy toward Syria combines the bloody tyranny of Assad with the murderous evil of ISIS, which everyone on the stage agreed is a matter in which the United States has to be involved. But she probably handed the Republican field a target when she said, in that same passage:

“We now finally are where we need to be. We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region…  And we finally have a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.”

Although that passage is quite defensible, Republicans will soon enjoy telling terrorism-frightened Americans that Clinton believes “we are now finally where we need to be” on ISIS.

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Clinton was not terribly interested in exploring any differences she might have with Sanders or O’Malley and she said several times that the important differences were between the Democratic candidates in general and the Republican candidates in general. The differences between the Dem candidates are about details, like how much to raise the minimum wage, while the Republicans favor no increase at all. Here’s one long version of that theme:

“I think it’s great standing up here with the senator and the governor talking about these issues, because you’re not going to hear anything like this from any of the Republicans who are running for president.

“They don’t want to raise the minimum wage, they don’t want to do anything to increase incomes. At the center of my economic policy is raising incomes, because people haven’t been able to get ahead, and the cost of everything, from college tuition to prescription drugs, has gone up.

“Of course we have to raise the minimum wage. Of course we have to do more to incentivize profit sharing, like we see with Market Basket right here in New Hampshire and New England, where all of the employees get a chance to share in the profits.

“And we’ve got to do more on equal pay for equal work. That means pass the Paycheck Fairness Act so we have transparency about how much people are making. That’s the way to get women’s wages up, and that’s good for them and good for their families and good for our communities.

“And there is a lot we can do in college affordability. I have debt-free tuition plans, free community college plans, getting student debt down. I also am very committed to getting the price of drugs down. And there’s a lot. You can go to my website, hillaryclinton.com, and read about it. But I guess the final thing that — that I would say is this is the kind of debate we need to take to the Republicans in the fall.”

Sanders is 74. Clinton is 68. O’Malley is 51. If his youthful appearance wasn’t enough to make the point that he is significantly younger than his intraparty rivals, he said three times that “we need new leadership” and began one of his answers with:

“May I offer a different generation’s perspective on this?”

Taking on Trump

When O’Malley was in Minneapolis in August to speak at a DNC meeting, he referred to Donald Trump as “a hate-spewing carnival barker.” He now refers to Trump as a fascist, as in this passage:

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“We will rise to challenge of ISIL and we will rise together to the challenges that we face in our economy. But we will only do so if we hold true to the values and the freedoms that unite us, which means we must never surrender them to terrorists, must never surrender our Americans values to racist, must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”

Clinton said that Trump “is becoming ISIS’s best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.”

Some accuracy-checkers have taken this is an attempt to make a factual statement, and have generally ruled that there no factual basis for calling Trump a recruiter for ISIS or for estimating how many ISIL recruits may have been influence by Trump’s Islamophobic statements.

Trump gave a phone interview to “Meet the Press” Sunday morning and was asked about Clinton’s statement. He replied:

“It’s just another Hillary lie. She lies like crazy about everything — whether it’s trips where she was being gunned down in a helicopter or an airplane. She’s a liar and everybody knows that.”

By the way, and to end with Trump, in the middle of the debate, after one commercial break, Clinton didn’t make it back on stage when the show resumed. She soon strode on the stage and, with all eyes on her, just said “sorry.” It was assumed that Clinton needed longer than her opponents to get to the bathroom and back. (And now, with the additional information that the women’s lavatory was further from the stage than the men’s, the New York Times confirms that assumption.) But when, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd was talking to Trump about the debate, Trump explained the real meaning and importance of her late return, thus:

Trump: “Hillary’s weak, frankly. She’s got no stamina, she’s got nothing, she doesn’t… She couldn’t even get back on the stage. Nobody knows what happened to her, it’s like she went home and went to sleep…”

Todd: “Why do you keep going on like this?”

Trump: “I’ll tell you why. Because we need a president with great strength and great stamina and Hillary doesn’t have that. We cannot have another bad president like we have right now. We need a president with tremendous intelligence, smarts, cunning, strength and stamina. And Hillary doesn’t have that.”

For a Washington Post annotated transcript of the entire debate, go here.