As I noted in my post about the, then upcoming, Democratic debate yesterday, my interest/enthusiasm about the Democrats’ nominating process isn’t terribly high. With the exception of the notable performance of Jim Webb (which I will discuss further, below), my assessment remains the same. Regardless, here’s my take on the Democrats and their nomination fight.
CNN. After what was roundly panned as a poor network performance with the GOP debate, CNN appeared to have taken criticism to heart and made changes to the way it was going to handle the Democrats. The major criticisms from the GOP debate were the length and that it seemed like the moderators and questioners were trying, to a sometimes ridiculous degree, to goad candidates into verbal altercations. Anderson Cooper did a good job following up and asking hard questions (my only knock is that he was a bit too quick to interrupt when a candidate strayed from the topic). My big concern about CNN was that they were going to be too light on the Democrats (given the panel of questioners’ exclusive Democrat leanings). I was pleasantly surprised that the questions were hard but fair. Good for CNN.
The Democrats Only Having Five Candidates. What a difference having less-than-half of the number of candidates that were on the GOP stage made for the Democrats. The GOP needs to take a lesson here and put pressure on low-polling candidates to drop out (or for MSNBC and future debate hosts to expand the “Kiddie Table”).
Bernie Sanders. Personally, I think that Senator Sanders’ appeal comes from his “mad as Hell” rhetoric and his commitment to expanding government programs and services. The problem, of course, is that Senator Sanders’ proposals would cost about 18 trillion dollars (2T more than the nation’s GDP). That said, Sanders finally got his chance to reach Hillary supporters and other curious Democrats. Certainly in this election cycle, as the Republicans are seeing as well, populism is a major selling point. Sanders’ attempts to play nice with Hillary Clinton on her email scandal was a cute bit of theater that showed Hillary, once again, laughing off national security concerns. Sanders’ big stumble was on what appears to be a major gap in his foreign policy understanding (not that I expected a bellicose reaction from Sanders, but he was all over the map with what he would and would not support. That kind of vacillation without a clear and firm understanding of the geopolitical realities gives rise to weak “red line” foreign policy blunders like the ones undertaken by the current Administration).
Joe Biden. The long shadow of the Vice President was cast clearly over the debate. Though most in the Party are getting tired of his “will he or won’t he” flirtation with a run, it was smart politics not to have declared by this point. While some major outlets are claiming a Clinton victory, the former Secretary of State had to play her cards in the debate and fully exposed that she was planning on taking credit for some of the larger successes of the Obama Administration (while completely throwing the President under the bus on the ones that were unpopular and also insinuating that America is not doing very well). The Vice President has a narrow, and closing, window to step into the race and run on a continuation of the Obama model.
Marco Rubio. How does Senator Rubio make this list? Because most “insider baseball” folks see him being a likely consensus candidate for the GOP nomination. The Democrats certainly took shots at the GOP, but there was nothing new in the rhetoric. A young, poised, Hispanic son of immigrants with a command of foreign policy and geopolitics is kryptonite to the all-white, all-old (except O’Malley), all-insider Democrat field. At the moment, the best Democrat to take on Rubio is sitting at Number One Observatory Circle and is not in the race.
Hillary Clinton. She did what she had to do in order to keep her frontrunner status. If her policy folks had a checklist backstage, she likely hit all of the points they planned and completely avoided any sensitive issues (for instance, she was the only candidate that didn’t actually answer the Black Lives Matter question and when she said she would address Benghazi, but then never did). She was called out on her “flip flopping” and simply steamrolled over the characterization while continually refusing to take positions on issues. She got an assist from Senator Sanders on the email issue and was able to blame Bush for the PATRIOT Act (despite her being part of the Administration that expanded the scope of Section 215). Clinton’s nearest rival, Senator Sanders, is double-digits behind her in national polls. There is no reason to think that this lead will diminish as a result of her performance. She gave the “evil” GOP fodder for the general election, but she played her base well.
Donald Trump. Aside from being called out by Martin O’Malley as being a “carnival barker,” The Donald got a relative pass. Certainly there were the veiled insinuations that Trump is a racist, etc., but the current GOP frontrunner wasn’t in the crosshairs. Trump was live-tweeting the debate and had a few good one-liners, but it wasn’t as entertaining as I imagined that it was going to be. All-in-all a net unchanged.
Martin O’Malley. The former Maryland Governor’s closing remarks didn’t mention himself or his ideas once. His knock on Debbie Wasserman-Shultz (the DNC Chairwoman who has been manipulating the nomination fight behind the scenes to favor Hillary Clinton, much to the ire of O’Malley and others) was enjoyable. O’Malley’s rhetoric on Glass-Steagall may have hit home with the anti-Wall Street crowd, but they already have their candidate in Bernie Sanders. O’Malley seemed either unwilling or unable to land a solid hit on Clinton (which very well may have been his strategy in order to get a position in her administration). A middling performance at best.
Lincoln Chafee. This was a nightmare performance for the former Governor and Senator from Rhode Island. Not only did he get almost no time compared to his rivals, but he also used the time he had to make incomprehensibly rambling answers. The low point of the night was admitting that he didn’t really have any qualifications to be in the United States Senate and would just vote along Party lines without knowing what he was voting on. This is terrible politics, but possibly one of the only truly honest answers of the night.
Jim Webb. Jim Webb is a very interesting case. Though certainly a modern liberal, Webb seemed far to the right of everyone else on the debate stage. A veteran who presented common sense solutions (or at least moderate, realistic, policy goals) almost seemed outside of the Democrat mainstream. This highlights the growing polarization narrative on both the left and the right (that is, the Democrats are getting “left-er” and the Republicans are getting “right-er”). It should be noted that Webb was the only candidate on stage who chose an “enemy” who wasn’t an American. I was also impressed by Webb’s attempt to push for a decrease in executive authority and a transfer back to the legislature. Unfortunately, the Party of JFK that Webb was representing appears to have been drowned in the cacophony of populism and leftist rhetoric. It’s kind of a shame. I think Webb could have gotten some moderate cross-over support.