So, what’s an affable, earnest, ideologically focused, much-beloved — and definitively losing — populist Democrat icon to do?
Bernie Sanders, narrowly leading in New Hampshire but losing almost everywhere else, came out swinging (shouting, actually) at front-runner Hillary Clinton at the start of the Democrats’ third and sparkiest debate. He didn’t go quite as far as his staff, which spent the pre-debate hours blasting Clinton over the voter vault mini-scandal, but he took the fight to Clinton with a vehemence missing in the two prior debates.
Sanders — with a powerhouse fundraising operation and widespread appeal among college-age supporters — remains a significant factor in the Democratic primary, but he did little to repulse Clinton’s surge at the dawn of 2016. If there was any question about the Democratic pecking order, it was erased when Clinton returned late from a commercial break — leaving her empty podium to upstage the two men who soldiered on unsuccessfully as the audience focused more on her blaring absence than their uttered eloquences.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Singe, don’t Bern. Sanders — famously allergic to debate prep and resistant to attacking his opponents on issues not directly pertaining to his core message of income inequality — clearly understood the fierce urgency of knocking Clinton down a peg. But his heart wasn’t quite into it. His staff defiantly refused to apologize for improperly tapping Clinton’s secret voter file, but he quickly offered a mea culpa. “Yes, I apologize,” he said. “Not only do I apologize, I want to apologize to my supporters.”
That’s not to say he didn’t take his shots. His most effective attack on Clinton, not surprisingly, came when he hammered the former New York senator on her close financial ties to Wall Street.
It speaks well of Sanders as a person, but he needs to recover lost ground. When moderator David Muir of ABC News asked Clinton why affluent donors liked her so much, Clinton quipped, “Everybody should.” Sanders, not missing a beat, shot back: “CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary but they ain’t gonna like me. And Wall Street is going to like me even less.” Birth of fundraising pitch.
2. Clinton diverges from Obama on ISIL — big-time. In previous comments, Clinton — who was known as the most hawkish member of President Barack Obama’s national security team — sought to distance herself from Obama’s stay-the-course strategy after the horrific attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. She has reiterated her call for a no-fly zone over Syria and suggested a more robust military response short of committing ground troops.
But on Saturday, she was far more explicit in her criticism of her one-time boss and 2008 Democratic primary opponent, saying her strategy was “not to contain … but to defeat” Islamic terrorism. That’s a far cry from Obama’s description of an ISIL on the run in early December. “I don’t think they’re gaining strength,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos a day before the Paris attacks. “What is true, from the start our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”
3. “We are now finally where we need to be.” It wasn’t quite a gaffe, but it wasn’t good. Clinton, speaking at a debate dominated by national security issues, suggested that the Obama administration’s post-Paris policy on ISIL, also known as ISIS, had finally gotten on track.
“We now finally are where we need to be,” she said. “We have a strategy and a commitment to go after ISIS, which is a danger to us as well as the region, and we finally have a U.N. Security Council resolution bringing the world together to go after a political transition in Syria.” The problem is that about three-quarters of the American people feel that terrorism is a top concern — and that critics, Republicans and Democrats alike, are miles away from believing U.S. policy in the region is anywhere near what it needs to be.
“No @HillaryClinton – We are not ‘where we need to be’ in fight against ISIS,” Jeb Bush tweeted a few minutes later.
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta told me that Clinton’s comment was taken out of context — and referred only to the U.N. resolution authorizing the start of peace talks on the Syrian civil war.
4. Martha Raddatz for President? The Twitter-verse wasn’t especially kind to the ABC debate moderating team — especially supporters of former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley who felt he was marginalized and denied airtime on topics, including his priorities of Wall Street regulation and criminal justice reform. But Martha Raddatz, the network’s chief global affairs correspondent, was arguably the most focused and well-informed questioner in any debate, Democratic or Republican, this year.
And her finest moment was when she called all three Democratic candidates, who have called for wiping out ISIL without committing ground troops, on the inconsistency of that position. “You have all said ISIS is a ruthless enemy and must be stopped. … Can you explain you why don’t support sending U.S. combat troops to join a coalition to fight ISIS?”
The responses were fuzzy: “This is a war for the soul of Islam,” Sanders said. “The troops on the ground should not be American troops. They should be Muslim troops.” Clinton equivocated too: “It’s wrong policy for us to be even imagining we’re going to put up … tens of thousands of American troops … we do have to form a coalition. I know how hard that is.”
But Raddatz had the last word — pointing out the contradictions of the kill-ISIL/no ground troops position: “Are you prepared to run the risk of a bigger war to achieve your goals to destroy ISIS, or are you prepared to give up on those goals if it requires a larger force?”
5. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. The press filing center at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester, New Hampshire, resembled the parking lot of a baseball stadium whose team had been eliminated from the playoffs. By the reality-TV standards of the Trump-headlined Republican mud-fights, the substance-heavy, we-all-agree-on-the-basics discourse of the third Democratic debate was a narcoleptic’s dream.
“On our worst day we have far more to offer than the right-wing extremists,” Sanders said in conclusion. That might be true, but the underlying Democratic consensus, coupled with the DNC’s dubious decision to schedule its debates during the let’s-get-cocktails-time on a pre-yuletide Saturday night, made for a less-than-scintillating evening in front of the tube.
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