The Democratic presidential debate on CBS Saturday night was really Hillary Clinton's to lose, and she didn't disappoint.
The event took place in the shadow of the horrifying attacks in Paris, and as such, the first section focused heavily on foreign policy, an area in which Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley don't demonstrate much interest. Clinton came in for criticisms, but none really landed.
The second section turned domestic, and got livelier, but neither challenger really landed the body blows against Clinton they needed to. They had the material — her Wall Street ties, her more moderate take on the minimum wage — but she parried the attacks well, and was never caught unprepared. Sanders and O'Malley desperately needed big moments to give them momentum with the Iowa caucuses less than three months away. They didn't get those moments, and so Clinton won by default.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
To some degree, Clinton wins by not losing. She's 24 points ahead in Iowa. Sanders has pulled ahead in New Hampshire, but he's from a neighboring state; he's likely to lose ground after a major Clinton victory in Iowa, just as Clinton herself won New Hampshire in 2008 by a smaller margin than she was polling at before Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. Barring major momentum to Sanders, or a major blow to her that causes her base to collapse, she's set to win.
And while she hardly had a perfect night, she definitely didn't lose. Despite being well to her party's right on foreign policy, and seemingly vulnerable to attacks on that issue, the vagueness of Sanders and O'Malley's ripostes in comparison with her considered answers was notable and blunted the attacks' power. Same with their attacks on economic issues. When O'Malley tried to attack her for only supporting a $12 — not $15 — minimum wage, he came across as unprepared, whereas she had a clear argument with supporting evidence. Her discussion of single-payer health care with Sanders was cordial rather than confrontational.
Her most serious error of the night was implying that she received support from Wall Street, and took Wall Street–friendly policies as senator from New York, because the financial industry was targeted in the 9/11 attacks. It was a bizarre moment. One recalls that the national policy response to 9/11 was not immediate deregulation of the financial sector, because whatever precise Manhattan neighborhood the World Trade Centers were located in, the point of the attack wasn't to reduce market liquidity (also, you know, the Pentagon got attacked too).
Even so, when CBS moderator John Dickerson used a tweet to confront Clinton on the answer, she backtracked, saying that she just meant that she met people involved in rebuilding the city after 9/11, some of whom were in finance and gave her donations:
Well, I'm sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. So, yes, I did know people. I've had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds say, "I don't agree with you on everything, but I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I'm going to support you." And I think that is absolutely appropriate.
Sanders even conceded the point, saying he "applauded" Clinton for her work rebuilding New York.
Clinton's main goal was avoiding a big, gaffe-y sound bite on the order of, say, Rick Perry's "oops" moment. It wasn't exactly a high bar, but she cleared it.
Loser: Bernie Sanders
To be somewhat tautological about it, Sanders lost by not winning. The one, narrow path he has to the nomination comes through a surprise win or close loss in Iowa, followed by a big win in New Hampshire — trusting that the momentum from winning early will carry him, much as it did for John Kerry in 2004. Given that Sanders is losing Iowa quite badly at the moment, and he has less than three months to go before the caucuses, he needed something big to happen to get his Iowa numbers rising again.
But while he didn't do a bad job in the debate, per se, he didn't have any real marquee moments that would make Iowa caucus-goers stand up and take notice. He didn't even have a moment as memorable as the time in the last debate when he declared to Clinton that "the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails." The best he got was a good quip about not being as much of a socialist as Dwight Eisenhower, during whose presidency the US had a top tax rate of 91 percent:
It was good, funny and memorable. But it's not an, "Oh, I should be taking this guy more seriously than I am" moment, or a sharp contrast to Clinton, who also expressed support for raising taxes on the rich during the debate. Sanders got in some real, substantive criticisms of Clinton on the Glass-Steagall law and her connections to Wall Street in general, and did a better job than O'Malley of jabbing at her Iraq War vote. But they weren't biting attacks that stuck with viewers. They were largely cordial and unmemorable.
His worst section of the debate, by far, was the section on guns. Sanders is simply not where the Democratic base has been on this issue ever since the Newtown shooting in December 2012. Representing Vermont, he voted to immunize gun dealers from lawsuits, and voted against the Brady bill, a major gun control law passed in 1993. But instead of straightforwardly saying, "I was wrong. I underestimated the damage that guns do in this country, and I will commit to tough measures going forward," he was extremely defensive, and repeatedly invoked his Vermont background. Here he is when asked if voting to immunize gun companies was a mistake:
BERNIE SANDERS: There are parts of that bill I agree with, parts I disagree. I am certainly, absolutely, willing to look at that bill again and make sure there's a stronger bill.
That's really, really weak sauce. So were his Rodney King–esque "why can't we all just get along" comments on the gun debate:
BERNIE SANDERS: I don't know the difference on guns between us. But I believe coming from a state that has virtually no gun control, I believe that I am in position to reach out to the 60% or 70% of the American people who agree with us on those issues. The problem, people all over this country — not you, secretary Clinton — are shouting at each other. And what we need to do is bring people together to work on the agreement where there is broad consensus and that's what I intend to do.
Primary voters aren't interested in "consensus" on the issue. They want fewer people to die from gun violence. Moreover, the reference to Clinton shouting about the issue was a weird strategic blunder. Sanders also accused her of this in the last debate, after which the Clinton campaign made hay over the gendered undertones the allegation had (would Sanders say a man speaking stridently about gun control was "shouting"?). The Sanders campaign vehemently denied that there was any sexist subtext to the comment, but talking about it at all is a loser for them. It's strange that Sanders would bring it up voluntarily.
Loser: Martin O'Malley
Martin O'Malley was in a difficult position going into the debate. He's polling a distant third behind Sanders and Clinton, which means that the debate stage is the only time the Democratic primary is treated as a three-person race rather than a two-person one. On the other hand, he is, frankly, not a very good debater — especially on issues where he's not clearly distinguished from both Sanders and Clinton, which is most of them.
This amazing moment captured by @caseycapachi of O’Malley trying to cut in on an answer pic.twitter.com/FvcmiARZ4U— Tal Kopan (@TalKopan) November 15, 2015
John Dickerson treated O'Malley like the third wheel he was — forcing him to look stupid trying to butt in on other people. But when he did get the floor, he usually didn't acquit himself very well. His answers on the foreign policy segment that opened the debate were kind of incomprehensible. The only clear distinctions he made with either Clinton or Sanders were on issues of rhetoric (he seems to find the term "boots on the ground" offensive), while on substance he wasn't willing to commit to either Clintonian interventionism or Sanders-esque skepticism. He said he disagreed with Clinton on ISIS, then reiterated everything that Clinton had just said on the subject.
When asked about FBI Director James Comey's recent comments saying that more scrutiny of police would cause crime to rise, he pivoted to a much vaguer and much more difficult question about how to repair the relationship between police officers and black Americans. He could've said, "Comey is wrong; there's no evidence that holding police accountable increases crime." Instead he wandered into murkier waters.
He brought up his public safety record as mayor of Baltimore as if it were something to be proud of, which was certainly a bold move given that he's usually blamed for encouraging the police aggression seen in the death of Freddie Gray this fall. And he somehow managed to answer a question on the minimum wage by saying that the US needs to "stop taking our policy advice from economists on Wall Street" — right after Clinton cited Princeton economist Alan Krueger, perhaps the most prominent defender of the minimum wage among academic economists and no one's idea of a centrist Wall Street lackey.
O'Malley came alive when he was talking about immigration, in the context of both Syrian refugees and comprehensive immigration reform. But his preparation and passion on immigration just threw the rest of his answers into sharp relief. With Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee gone, O'Malley doesn't look like the third serious candidate in a race of five; he looks like the last hanger-on in a two-candidate race. It's not clear why he's still in, and it's certainly not clear how things could get better for him from here.
Loser: the viewers
Recent Republican debates have been fun to watch. They've had colorful characters like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. They've had candidates taking shots at each other and at the moderators. And they've had candidates blatantly dodging moderators' questions in order to push their own pet issues.
Saturday's Democratic debate, in contrast, was serious, respectful, and dreadfully dull — without giving us much insight into how the candidates differ.
Instead of asking candidates how they would respond to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Dickerson asked about Hillary Clinton's 2002 vote for the Iraq War (she long ago admitted it was a mistake) and how the candidates feel about the phrase "radical Islam." It was an odd and mostly pointless semantic dispute.
Confronted by Sanders over her Wall Street fundraising, Clinton ludicrously suggested that the big checks were a recognition of her work rebuilding Lower Manhattan in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was a strange, losing approach, but also one that didn't illuminate anything about the issues.
And as funny as Sanders's Eisenhower quip was, he didn't give a specific number for his preferred top income tax rate. Neither did Clinton. Neither did O'Malley.
Fundamentally, the debate was boring because the stakes were low. Hillary Clinton has enjoyed a comfortable lead throughout the campaign. If she doesn't make any big mistakes, she's going to be the Democratic nominee. So she carefully avoided saying anything controversial. That was good for her presidential prospects but no fun for the viewing public.