And then there were three!
Shorn of the low-polling distractions of ex-Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Gov. Martin O’Malley faced off at Drake University in Des Moines.
Ms. Clinton had to maintain her growing lead in the polls and appearance of inevitability. Mr. Sanders had to try to regain his stalled momentum. Mr. O’Malley had to let the world know he existed.
A pattern quickly emerged: Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders would spat, and Mr. O’Malley would try—with mixed success—to jump in.
So who won? Short answer? Quite possibly the Republicans who will slice, dice and splice clips from the forum into future campaign ads.
We’ll always have Paris…
The massacre last night in France cast a long shadow over the conversation, with a moment of silence before the debate began. Mr. Sanders demonstrated why his staff reportedly pushed back against CBS’s decision to put a greater emphasis on foreign affairs following the tragedy: his policy statements were little more than broad platitudes, and he couldn’t decide whether to call ISIS “murderous” or “barbarous” and ended up saying “marbarous.” The others weren’t much stronger: Ms. Clinton, for whom foreign policy should be a strong (pants)suit, uttered a sound byte that will likely haunt her down the campaign trail—”this is not America’s fight.” She meant that the country should partner with local allies in Iraq and Syria, but she struggled to explain her vote for the Iraq War and to separate herself from the Obama administration’s less than glamorous foreign affairs record—a record she helped create. Mr. O’Malley hit back at the ex-secretary of state, saying “this is America’s fight,” but then articulated the same strategy.
Every single candidate refused to refer acts of terrorism as Islamic despite when asked point-blank repeatedly by moderator John Dickerson, which is sure to become GOP ammunition next year.
Fight for $15
The socialist from Vermont was more in his element talking economics, getting big applause for endorsing a high top tax rate by alluding to the 90 percent income levy for the biggest earners under Republican President Dwight Eisenhower—”I’m not that much of a socialist, compared to Eisenhower.” But he really seemed to have the upper hand on Ms. Clinton on the minimum wage: “15 bucks an hour and I apologize to nobody for that.” Ms. Clinton struggled to defend the Obama administration-endorsed $12 an hour pay floor, which is one that many experts back, but not necessarily most Democratic primary voters. The Maryland governor got in a decent jab by accusing her of relying on a “Wall Street economist” right before a commercial break.
Wall Street Occupied
Ms. Clinton was asked to explain her heavy contributions from large financial interests—but, in Mr. Sanders’s judgment, it was “not good enough.”
“Why over her political career has Wall Street been a major, the major, political campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?” he said, mocking her claims of independence. “Why do they give political campaign contributions?”
Ms. Clinton hit back hard.
“He has used his answer to impugn my integrity,” she answered, before proudly waving her gender card—the number of donations she’s received from women—and her work in Lower Manhattan after 9/11. The latter got some negative responses on Twitter for seeming out of place in a conversation about campaign donations.
Mr. O’Malley mocked Ms. Clinton’s financial reform package as “weak tea,” but weirdly decided to use the moment to ask the audience for contributions. The former first lady came back by appealing to the MoveOn.org/New York Times-reading crowd by name-dropping economists Paul Krugman and Paul Volcker and talking about how her plan reflects their views
Mr. O’Malley got his most memorable line of the night calling GOP front-runner Donald Trump “an immigrant bashing carnival barker,” and got massive applause for being the first candidate to utter the phrase “black lives matter.” Mr. Sanders showcased his Achilles Heel of a moderate gun control record when he refused to call his vote for a bill granting gun manufacturers immunity from shooting suits a mistake, and assumed an awkward gravity when answering a question about racial justice. He also made what might have been a damaging gaffe in referring to the safety of Baltimore—the city where Mr. O’Malley was once mayor, and which saw massive race riots earlier this year—when trying to rebuff an attack from the former governor on firearms. Mr. Sanders has weak poll numbers with African-Americans and has become a target for Black Lives Matter protesters.
Ms. Clinton, who dominates with minorities in the polls, mentioned Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner by name and praised the demonstrations at the University of Missouri.
Ms. Clinton emphasized her “scars”—which she has plenty of, for better or worse. Mr. O’Malley called for “new policies” and “fresh approaches” instead of “polarizing figures,” but had to confess state and local experience don’t prime an executive for national level crises. Mr. Sanders kept saying he wants a “revolution,” but did little to turn his poll numbers around.