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Democratic Candidates Struggle With Message After Paris Attacks

Two candidates offer baffling and almost incoherent messages, while one tries to change the subject.

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What should have been a decisive demonstration of leadership for the future commander in chief of the United States turned into a giant missed opportunity as Democratic candidates fumbled responses to the terrorist attack in Paris.

The attacks on Friday caused a last-minute change in the format of Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa. The candidates were told ahead of time that the first 30 minutes of the debate was to focus on national security questions.

So who won on that portion of the debate? The collective judgement of the beltway press: None of them.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders basically got two sentences out of his mouth about the attacks in Paris. He was “shocked” and “disgusted.” But he said nothing meaningful about how he’d handle the ISIS threat at home and abroad. Then he changed the subject entirely to the one he likes best: Income inequality in America. He’s running for president because the U.S. has what he calls a “rigged economy,” and that’s what he wants to fix.

“Sanders is an idiosyncratic candidate whose idea of orthodoxy is doing whatever the hell he wants to do,” writes Glenn Thrush at Politico. “Sanders seemed intent not to let the crisis divert him from his core economic inequality message.”

The Senator from Vermont “had swung and missed at a chance to show that he could be a statesman as opposed to simply a domestic policy revolutionary,” wrote Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had what at first sounded like a solid basis of a policy statement when she said, “ISIS cannot be contained, it must be defeated.” The word “contained” is key because that was precisely the word President Obama used to describe how the U.S. and its allies are slowly turning the tide in the military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Containment is an old political word that presidents in the last century used to describe their strategy against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Her choice of phrase represented a good start and marked a clear break with the Obama Administration that has taken a lot of flack for not being willing to attack ISIS in a more decisive manner.

And then it went downhill.

“There is no question in my mind that if we summon our resources, both our leadership resources and all of the tools at our disposal, not just military force, which should be used as a last resort, but our diplomacy, our development aid, law enforcement, sharing of intelligence in a much more open and cooperative way — that we can bring people together. But it cannot be an American fight,” Clinton said.

“She rambled incoherently, at some point simply listing things,” wrote Max Fischer of Vox.

Confusing, vague and exactly not what one would expect from a former Secretary of State. In Fischer’s judgement, Clinton “offered neither policy ideas nor even vague rhetorical themes. … She neither scored political points nor articulated a foreign policy position. It was all downside.”

“Clinton’s been cagey so far on the specifics of what she might do against ISIS, but overall she’s taken a more dovish line than I might have expected,” wrote Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight. She along with the rest of the field seemed to dance uncomfortably around the question over the need to eventually commit significant U.S. military forces on the ground to fight and defeat ISIS.

Which brings us to former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who’s polling so badly versus Clinton and Sanders that the conventional wisdom has him angling to be Clinton’s running mate once she solidifies the nomination.

He “respectfully disagreed” with Clinton: “This actually is America’s fight. It cannot solely be America’s fight. America is best when we work in collaboration with our allies. America is best when we are actually standing up to evil in this world. And ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world.”

Fischer at Vox was “literally baffled,” he wrote: “O’Malley also got an entirely foreseeable question on whether he was prepared to handle tough foreign policy challenges as someone with little international experience,” and after starting each response with pre-planned talking points lost focus on them the more he spoke.

O’Malley’s answers may indeed have been baffling. But they served him well in one way: Google searches for his name spiked early in the debate, according to data from Google Trends, which given his position in the polls is something he desperately needs.

Here’s how the Google search game played out during the full two hours.

But what the Google search data also showed is that the things most viewers were interested in during the entire two hours the debate was on the air were the attacks in Paris, ISIS and terrorism. Even with a full day to prepare, that all three candidates struggled so badly to define themselves on the one thing that everyone in the country was thinking and talking about will raise tough questions about their campaigns and give the Republicans some useful ammunition to use against them in the days to come.

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