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

REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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.

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).

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.”

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.

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,, 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:

“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.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/21/2015 - 10:51 am.

    Christmas comes early

    Watching this debate reminded me of watching Santa promise my kids whatever they wanted.

    Listening to “old” Bernie Saint Nick and “old” Mrs. Claus Clinton proposing to confiscate and distribute to their constituency other people’s candy was entertaining.

    Of course – using the phrase “tax the rich” was avoided, but coming up with other code phrases and code words was equally entertaining.

    Future entertainment will be political commentators spin the Democrat “tax and spend” philosophy and turn them into moderate deficit hawks.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/21/2015 - 12:02 pm.

      Sure but…

      Trump and Cruz are promising their voters whatever they want… the difference is that democrats are demanding promises that are toxic to the nation.

    • Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2015 - 01:22 pm.


      1. There is no Santa Claus. No wonder your kids never got what they wanted.

      2. Neither Senator Sanders nor Secretary Clinton proposed confiscation – of either candy or money.

      3. There’s nothing wrong with taxing the rich, but please provide us with some examples of those other code phrases.

      4. I look forward to Mr. Gotzman’s explanation of how any national government can fund its operations without both taxing and spending.

      • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/22/2015 - 01:36 pm.

        The income redistibution santa….

        1. – I am tired of being the “Santa Claus” for the DFL base. So you did not take your kids to see Santa or were you overly tired from celebrating the winter solstice? Maybe you just visited the family deficit hawk – low promise- Santa.

        2. – Confiscation? OK “investments in the trickle down democratic establishment.”

        3. Did you listen to the “debate” or did you go to bed early or fall asleep when H.C. failed to show up on time for the 2nd part of the debate. The thrill was gone?

        4. So how much more do you want to tax and spend? When will the all powerful federal government have enough money? I am sure visions of new government programs and initiatives are even now “dancing in your head.”

        Merry Christmas

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2015 - 02:58 pm.

      Certainly for the Democrats

      Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/22/2015 - 06:04 am.

      Oh Please

      For two generations now the conservatives have been promising tax cuts and deficit reduction. Every time it leads to soaring debt until adults enter the room, re-establish order and pay the bills. (Then the adults get blamed for paying the bills!)

  2. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 12/21/2015 - 11:29 am.

    Trump and bathrooms

    Trump reaches a new low by expressing the thought that a woman being delayed in the bathroom is a sign of weakness and show Hillary unfit to be President? Of course, he trades in wives before they age and probably has a private bathroom wherever he goes. If his aide allowed another person to go first, he or she would probably be fired. Wouldn’t want to lose his standing as No. 1.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/21/2015 - 12:37 pm.


      It’s a sign of his own weakness that he can’t come up with attacks on policy, but has to resort to juvenile taunts.

      “Wouldn’t want to lose his standing as No. 1.” In a post about Trump’s criticism of a woman being delayed in the bathroom? Was that intentional?

  3. Submitted by John Appelen on 12/21/2015 - 09:43 pm.


    O’Malley definitely seems the most Presidential of the 3. Why again don’t the Democrats support him? I think Sanders and Clinton are a gift to the GOP, one is a self described Democratic Socialist and the other has credibility issues.

    It is interesting watching both of these parties and their own brand of disfunction.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/22/2015 - 09:18 am.


      Someone has to play the role.
      O’Malley has nothing to lose (no name recognition; no party support), so he can say anthing he wants without having to worry about actually having to act on it at some point.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/22/2015 - 12:37 pm.

      Why Not O’Malley?

      You raise a good point. His positions on the issues are very similar to those of Senator Sanders. Some of us like his candidacy for no better reason than proving that the left end of the spectrum is not some kind of personality cult.

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 12/22/2015 - 07:27 pm.


        I find the smarmy used car salesman routine off putting, mannerism-wise he comes of like the Cruz of the left, not a good approach.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2015 - 08:48 am.

    A few observations …

    1. The only major differences between Sanders and Clinton on foreign policy and use of the military are on the wisdom of the policy of regime change and the use of the no-fly zone in Syria. In both cases, Sanders’ position is the same as many of the GOP candidates, including Trump, Cruz, Paul and others.

    Meaning, come the debates of the general election, Hillary Clinton will be defending why she is less interested in defeating ISIS than in deposing Assad, and why she would risk World War 3 by shooting down Russian aircraft in her no-fly zone. She claimed Putin wouldn’t put planes in the air under her no-fly zone, which only illustrates her miscalculation of Putin (again) and like in Benghazi, demonstrates her reckless ignorance of the use of the military.

    2. Bathroomgate. Apparently, Mrs. Clinton was late coming back from the break because she wouldn’t use the public restroom until all of the stalls had been vacated, which took a few minutes. This goes to her sense of privilege and entitlement that comes from being a kept woman for the past 25 years, which includes such revelations that she hasn’t driven her own car since 1989.

    Obviously, it doesn’t jive with her claim to be in touch with the “little” people. As a sitting president, George H.W. Bush was ridiculed by the press because he had never seen a barcode scanner used in a grocery store before. This is worse.

    3. Digital Watergate. Richard Nixon was forced from office for what amounted to some of his campaign staffers stealing files (hard copy) from his opponent’s campaign headquarters. Forced to resign because he ignored the act of stealing campaign intelligence by his campaign. Yet, it’s all been forgiven, if not forgotten, while the DNC was caught protecting the Clinton campaign with its unbalanced ruling preventing the Sanders campaign from accessing its own data.

    4. Sanders is not a serious candidate. All this data access episode proves, along with the previous incident when Sanders absolved Clinton of using a private server to cover up her influence peddling and other wrong-doings, is that Bernie Sanders is not really a serious candidate fighting for the nomination but is only serving in the role as the rabbit in a dog race.

    If he was a serious candidate, he would be using those incidents to his benefit in trying to convince democrats that he should get the nomination instead of the former first lady. That fact that he isn’t says he’s taking money from donors under false pretenses and he should drop out of the race and give the money back to those who were duped into betting on the rabbit.

    • Submitted by Howard Miller on 12/23/2015 - 10:37 am.

      Sander is serious, authentic and correct

      Senator Sanders has consistently focused on economic inequality and how the wealthy few have gamed government at the expense of the rest of us. He has urged restraint in putting US boots on the ground overseas, after our decade long experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. His campaign talks focus on policy, not personal slurs like how long bathroom breaks take.

      If you don’t take him seriously, you’re just not listening to him. He’s one of the truly serious, policy-oriented, issues-focused candidates to run for our highest office in recent memory. Whether you agree or not on his policy proposals, he’s serious and factually accurate more than any other candidate. I think we’ll find him to be an excellent POTUS.

  5. Submitted by Tom Clark on 12/22/2015 - 09:00 am.

    Another debate

    This one seemed to be more a rehash of the last debate, and there weren’t any real surprises. I did think Sanders was sharper this time around though, but Clinton still comes across as the candidate who would be the best choice to run for the Democrats, IMO.

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