Grace Segers talks us through last week’s Democratic Party debate
The second Democratic debate last Friday in Des Moines, Iowa featured a considerably smaller pool of candidates than its Republican equivalent: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as candidates for the Democratic nominee for President. This made for a quieter debate than the previous Republican ones; it also makes it harder to ascribe concrete winners and losers to the proceedings.
Unlike in the Republican field, many consider it a given that Clinton will be the eventual Democratic candidate , including possibly the Democratic National Committee, who schedule the debates.
The DNC isn’t supposed to favour one candidate in this stage of the campaign, however, they have scheduled only six debates all occurring on nights that will probably gain low viewership; the most recent debate was on a Saturday night, and only 8 million people tuned in to watch. Future debates will occur on the Saturday before Christmas, and on January 17, which is the date of the American National Football League playoffs.
Debates provide candidates with low name recognition—O’Malley and Sanders—the opportunity to present themselves to a larger audience. The DNC’s scheduling could leave O’Malley and Sanders disadvantaged. Comparatively, Clinton, who is already considered the presumptive nominee, will benefit from not having to undergo extensive scrutiny in front of a large audience. While this is good for the former Secretary of State, however, it’s bad for the American people who deserve to see candidates pressed on important issues.
The atmosphere of the debate was very somber due to the terrorist attacks in Paris the night before. Moderator John Dickerson of CBS News opened the debate with a moment of silence in solidarity for the people of Paris, and the first thirty minutes were devoted to answering foreign policy questions instead of national economy as intended.
The moderators were arguably the best part of the debate. After the showdown between the Republican candidates and the CNBC moderators, wherein the moderators had asked rudely phrased questions and candidates such as Senator Ted Cruz had in turn attacked the media, it was refreshing to have such a well-moderated debate. CBS News hosted the debate in an interesting partnership with Twitter. There was a graphic at the bottom of the screen at all times measuring how often each candidate was mentioned on Twitter throughout the debate and the moderators picked up questions from viewers in real time making the candidates truly accountable to their audience.
This use of Twitter was seen at a crucial point in the debate and used to hold Clinton to account over a contentious answer of hers. Sanders asked Clinton how she could justify receiving large donations from Wall Street. Clinton responded by invoking the 9/11 terror attacks, claiming that Wall Street donors support her campaign because she was a senator for New York at the time of the attacks.
“We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild,” Clinton said in explanation. Many Republicans and Democrats alike went to Twitter to show their disapproval of supposedly using 9/11 to evade a question especially in light of the attacks in Paris. Some of these Tweets were shown in the debate, forcing Clinton to clarify her position and apologize that the user who sent that Tweet “had that impression.”
It could be argued that each of the candidates “won” the debate: Sanders and O’Malley had another opportunity to raise their profiles and did, and Clinton won by virtue of not messing up too badly.
However, Sanders appeals the most to a niche audience, one composed of liberal, educated, and largely white voters. While he used the debate to market his “political revolution,” it remains unclear if he’ll be able to appeal to the Democratic mainstream.
O’Malley’s policies are very similar his fellow candidates’ ideas and he often struggled to distinguish himself, even in a group of only three candidates.
Clinton showed her competency on foreign affairs, which is crucial given the current international situation.
While the second Democratic debate was potentially not as exciting as its Republican counterparts, it highlighted the importance of strong debate structure, effectively managed, and also of debates as a public forum, particularly in times of such international strife. Debates are a critical aspect of American political culture, and Saturday’s debate demonstrated how they should be used.
Featured image credit: DonkeyHotey