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Why Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders give such awful answers on ISIS

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

About an hour and a half into Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate, when the questions finally turned to foreign policy, specifically to ISIS, what had previously been a freewheeling and high-spirited debate suddenly became much more awkward.

"As everybody here knows, this is an incredibly complicated and difficult issue," Sen. Bernie Sanders said, going on to declare that he wouldn't send American ground troops to Syria — but offering little about what he would do. He argued, awkwardly, that "Muslim troops should be on the ground" to fight ISIS. And he praised, oddly, the hereditary king of Jordan.

Hillary Clinton's answer was, in political terms, not much better. "If there is any blame to be spread around, it starts with the prime minister of Iraq who sectarianized his military, setting Shia against Sunni," she said, also citing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, Saudi Arabia, and Iran as responsible for ISIS.

Martin O'Malley proposed that the US organize an anti-ISIS coalition much as it had to achieve "victory in two world wars" — a somewhat tenuous reading of how those wars had actually unfolded, and a difficult argument to square with his position that the US should not send ground troops.

All three candidates, just as in every previous Democratic debate, offered answers on ISIS and terrorism that oscillated between pablum and nonsense.

Some viewers may be tempted to believe it's because all three candidates are clueless on these issues, but it's the clueless candidates who can often answer questions the most clearly and confidently — just listen to Donald Trump the next time he says something easily falsifiable.

Rather, there is a certain tension that none of the candidates wishes to acknowledge here: All three have plans on ISIS that are some version of the status quo. But the status quo is unpopular; it's not an easy sell to ask Americans to look at the Middle East and conclude, "Let's do more of what we're doing now."

So rather than acknowledge that they want to continue the status quo, all three candidates are describing policies that are almost exactly the same as Obama's while striving for rhetoric that suggests drastic differences where few really exist. Clinton is seeking to dress up the status quo as a new and more hawkish course, while Sanders wants to dress up the status quo as a new and more dovish course.

It's little surprise that when ISIS came up, all three candidates became awkward and uncomfortable for the first time during a debate in which they otherwise had seemed comfortable and confident.

Clinton proposed a "three-point plan" of three things the US is already doing. Sanders merely praised Obama and then pivoted to criticizing Republicans. O'Malley urged, "We need to develop new alliances" against ISIS, though I'm not sure I could name a country in the Middle East, other than Iran or Syria, with which we are not already in some form of alliance.

The Republican candidates, by the way, are doing the exact same thing: Their plans are broadly identical to Obama's. But this is easier for them to manage, in political terms, because they can criticize Obama and then present their plan as novel. Democratic candidates are in the awkward position of feeling they can neither fully embrace nor reject Obama on these issues.

This is an awkward little dance that the Democratic candidates have done in every debate. So far, it hasn't been a big issue for them: All three are competing for the same primary voters, so as long as they all fail equally it's not a big deal for them.

But eventually, one of them will have to enter the actual general election, and he or she will at that point face a choice: either openly run on the status quo and defend Obama's record on ISIS or come up with a proposal that is different enough to truthfully break with the Obama administration.

The latter might sound like the smart political choice, but unfortunately for the candidates it requires coming up with a better plan for ISIS. And if one exists, I'm not sure I've heard it.

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