3 Winners and 3 Losers from the Second Democratic Debate

Parsing the results of the Iowa debate.

Theo Anderson


At the second Democratic debate on Nov. 14, candidates for the party’s presidential nomination — Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — discussed national security, inequality, racial justice and the corrupting influence of Wall Street, among other things. Some candidates and issues stood out. Some did not. Here’s a breakdown of the evening’s winners and losers.


The living wage 

President Obama made a $10.10 federal minimum wage central to his 2014 State of the Union address. At the time, $10.10 seemed on the outer fringes of the possible at the time. Now it just seems timid.

The buzz last year around Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law and the string of cities that subsequently raised their minimum wage to at least $10 have changed the discussion dramatically. Indeed, at the debate, Hillary Clinton was forced to defend her call for a $12 minimum — versus the $15 federal minimum proposed by Sanders and O’Malley — by citing the economist Alan Krueger. His work, she said, finds that there are no overall job losses at $12 per hour. But the $15 minimum wage would put us in uncharted waters. That is why I support a $12 national federal minimum wage … But I do believe that is a minimum. And places like Seattle, like Los Angeles, like New York City — they can go higher.”

Hillary Clinton’s damn emails

The GOP’s embarrassing marathon of a Benghazi hearing in October is the main reason the controversy has faded (for the moment). But Sanders’s memorable dismissal of the issue in the first debate — I’m sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails” — helped Clinton by trivializing the issue, while positioning Sanders as the voice of sanity in a media culture obsessed with personalities and trivialities.

Asked again about the emails on Saturday, Sanders said he would like the media to begin talking about why the middle class is disappearing, why we have more people in jail than any other country, why we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, and we’re the only major country without paid medical and family leave. We’ve gotten off of Hillary’s emails? Good. Let’s go to the major issues facing America.”

Bernie Sanders

The objective evidence is mixed. A poll of Democratic primary voters taken for the Wall Street Journal gave Sanders the win over Clinton, 44 percent to 32 percent. Those numbers were roughly reversed on the question of which candidate is best equipped to protect national security, but Sanders won by a wide margin — 58 percent to 27 percent — on the question of which candidate best understands the problems facing people like you.” On the other hand: a CBS poll gave Clinton the win by 23 points.

Polls can be cited to support either candidate: Who won the battle for social media? Who won this or that demographic? But the fact that a self-described democratic socialist” is still in serious contention for the Democratic nomination is a win in itself.


Lawrence Lessig and clean elections

The Harvard law professor ended his bid for the presidency two weeks ago, after the Democratic Party changed the rules and shut him out of the debates. By then he had already hurt himself with the eccentric promise that, if elected, he would immediately resign once he succeeded in reforming the nation’s campaign finance laws.

All of which is regrettable. The debate sorely needed his voice.

Lessig often notes that policy debates are a very fine thing, but none of it matters so long as members of Congress are beholden to their wealthy donor overlords. On Saturday, it was left to Sanders to make that point while talking about the corrupting influence of Wall Street, particularly on his chief opponent, Clinton, who has said that overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision will be on her agenda as president. But she protested that Sanders had impugned” her integrity for suggesting that all the money she rakes in from corporations might affect her votes.

Subsequently, she never found time to comment on campaign finance reform. Neither did anyone else.

The climate

It seemed like such a promising start.

Early in the debate, moderator John Dickerson asked Sanders if he stands by his assertion that climate change is the greatest threat to national security, especially after the terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night. Absolutely,” Sanders said. In fact, climate change is directly linked to the growth of terrorism.”

Then, for nearly two hours, everyone ignored the single most serious threat to national security. Not because there was nothing to talk about. Just in the past week, the Yale Project on Climate Communication released a report showing the influence of the recent papal visit on attitudes about climate change. (For example, the number of Americans who reported that climate change has become very or extremely important” to them rose from 19 percent to 26 percent). Meantime, over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine reported that the accelerated melting of Greenland’s ice sheet might mean that it’s too late to prevent catastrophic warming.

In other words: Same old same old. Republicans are in total denial, while Democrats dutifully nod to climate change as a looming global emergency — but seem stuck in their own sort of denialism.

Attempts to put terrible votes in proper historic context”

Pressed by Clinton to apologize for his record of votes against gun-control laws, Sanders wisely ditched his usual response that the context must be taken into account: Vermont is a rural state where guns are used differently than in urban areas, or have a different symbolism, or some such weirdness.

Instead he focused on the future, offering that he would be happy to revisit some of his votes from the past. Clinton, who has said that her vote for the war in Iraq was a mistake, would have benefitted from the same strategy: Move forward. Instead, when Sanders called Iraq one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the modern history of the United States,” she chose to note that it’s important that we put this in historic context.”

There followed some examples of the U.S. being victimized by terrorism going back decades.” They included an attack in Beirut in the 1980s, attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa in the 1990s, and the 9/11 attacks. As is often the case when politicians decide to bring in historic context,” these examples were largely irrelevant and clarified nothing.

Except that, from a purely strategic perspective, Clinton sure does wish she could have that vote back.

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Theo Anderson is an In These Times contributing writer. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7.
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