Clinton Wins Debate, But May Lose on Facts

Democratic Presidential Debate

Image courtesy CNN

Clinton Wins Debate, But May Lose on Facts

| published October 14, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review staff writer


In Las Vegas this week, the Democratic Party had its first debate between its top candidates running for President. Like the heavily viewed Republican debates held in Cleveland and California, millions of Americans tuned in on television or watched streaming versions on the internet.

The short version: Clinton won on points. The front-runner performed well, at least as well as possible, but her closest challenger got in the best one-liners. In addition, however, all five candidates on stage played it fast and loose with the facts, an arguably minor problem which may prove to dog the favorites for some weeks.

Still, it was a good night for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the first major debate among the five Democratic candidates running for President, and most political analysts scored her the winner on both style and substance. Clinton faced pressure numerous times during the debate over her apparent flip-flops on several key issues, not the least among them: gun control, free trade agreements, Iraq and Iran, U.S. actions in Libya, and her thus-far most troublesome nemesis, those email accounts set up when she became U.S. Secretary of State.

Insurgent Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders also faced pressure from several debaters—and from CNN moderator Anderson Cooper—to explain his position on gun control, the singular issue which places him at odds with many progressives. Sanders, who represents what he frequently calls a rural state, is not in favor of traditional controls on guns, and favors the right of citizens to own weapons, especially for self-defense and hunting.

But all five candidates present faced some degree of intense pressure: Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee for not only his frequent political party changes (Chaffee started his career as a Republican in the Senate, then switched his affiliation to independent, then later to Democrat), but also for his anomalous votes on trade in the U.S. Senate; Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley for his policies on street violence, crime and police powers, a template which many liberals say fostered the zero-tolerance behavior of law enforcement leading to the death of Freddy Grey and the explosion of racial tensions and rioting which swept through Baltimore earlier this year; and former Virginia Senator James Webb for his numerous positions on a variety of issues—from gun control to immigration, from race relations to affirmative action—which seem to place him squarely at odds with progressives and with most Democrats.

Most political observers and pundits scored Clinton the solid winner, at least in terms of her ability to smoothly and reasonably answer the questions and address the issues thrust at the candidates. On style, Clinton also scored well, maintaining her composure during tough rounds of sparring, and managing also to not sound artificial or phony in her delivery—a problem for which her top campaign strategists and debate preppers had much worry.

But her inability to deftly explain her many reversals on some key issues may give her opponents—in particular Sanders and O’Malley—useful ammunition in the coming months before the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Among other exchanges, Clinton faced pressure to explain her apparent flip-flops and position changes on the broad issues of the Middle East—a complex and fragmented region now facing extreme violence and escalating tensions now that Russia has entered into the equation. Clinton’s opponents on stage clearly sensed that much of the breakdown of order in Syria, Iraq, Libya and other Middle Eastern states has been the direct result of foreign policy failures on Clinton’s watch as the nation’s top diplomat. Clinton was also hit repeatedly for her Senate vote in support of U.S. intervention in Iraq—the political action which authorized the administration of George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq. Chafee defended his record on that vote as one of the few Senators who voted against the Iraq invasion.

Arguably the biggest highlight of the debate came when Cooper introduced the issue of Clinton’s controversial private email account—set up at the beginning of her tenure as Secretary of State and used throughout her term as the nation’s top diplomat. The email and server controversies have dogged Clinton for most of the year, and may have caused serious damage to her blueprint of remaining the unchallenged front-runner within the Democratic Party. Republicans have accused Clinton of using the private email account to dodge accountability for her decisions, and reporters have followed the issue closely, writing of Clinton’s reluctance to provide transparency for her actions.

Clinton told Cooper that she had apologized for her misjudgment, but stressed that she believes that the issue has been driven largely by partisan politics. When it was Sanders’ turn to weigh-in on the email controversy, Sanders prefaced his statement by saying that what he was about to say might be politically inconvenient to his campaign.

“Enough about the damned emails,” Sanders said, “let’s talk about the real issues facing America.” The comment drew an enormous round of cheers and applause from the room, and prompted Clinton to shake Sanders’ hand.

On the campaign trail and in interviews, Sanders has only rarely commented on the email controversy, and was clearly not willing to take the bait during the debate. His forceful response may have benefitted Clinton more than any other single comment during the long night of questions and answers. But though Sanders effectively slammed the door on further discussion of the email and server issue for the debate—in fact none of the other candidates offered any substantive comments on the controversy—Cooper pointed out that the issue will hardly go away that easily. There are several investigations by independent bodies into Clinton’s use of the private email account, including an investigation by the FBI and a still-pending court case spurred by the Associated Press and watchdog groups who have sued under Freedom of Information Act provisions.

Lincoln Chafee was the only candidate in the room to challenge the assumption that Clinton’s email controversy has been cooked up entirely by GOP partisans in Congress. When asked his opinion on the matter, Chafee indicated that he thought Clinton’s decision to use the privately-crafted email account, as well as her long rear-guard action to deny that she had done anything wrong, did speak to her credibility as a decision-maker and a public servant. When Cooper threw the question back to Clinton, asking if she wanted to respond to Chafee’s barb, Clinton simply said “no.”

Clinton was, however, generally successful at reminding viewers that the GOP’s Senate and House investigations may be largely a political attack, and she quoted Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who made the ill-timed and clumsy remark that the Benghazi Committee was in fact forged to damage Clinton politically. McCarthy’s misstep played into the hands of the Clinton camp, which has sought to divert blame for the ongoing fracas onto vengeful Republicans in Washington.

Sanders’ remark about the emails was popular within the room, and went viral on social media. But more importantly, his comment reflected what most analysts agree was a substantive debate performance by all five contenders. There were few notable personal attacks, and fewer attempts to insult one another, in sharp contrast to the two previous GOP debates. Most of the Democratic candidates also took time to attack the Republican Party, and especially GOP front-runner Donald Trump. Trump made for an easy target in the room packed with partisan Democrats.

The man not in the room was widely discussed in the days and hours leading up to Tuesday’s debate in Las Vegas. Vice-President Joe Biden, for whom speculation has been rampant for many weeks, has thus far deferred making an announcement that he intends to run for President. Many observers suggest that he is close to a decision, but political experts say that he has only a scant few weeks in which to formally decide, as qualifying deadlines now loom in several early primary states. Furthermore, by missing the first major debate (the Democratic Party has at least six more debates planned), Biden may have missed the opportunity to give his name additional traction and media exposure.

Biden has said he is not yet ready emotionally to make a decision, though in fact he and his top supporters have been working behind the scenes—meeting with potential fundraisers and donors, discussing options with strategists, and conferring with party officials and party chieftains.

As for the debate performances of the second-tier contenders, only O’Malley seemed to shine during the three-hours of debate. Neither Chafee nor Webb seemed comfortable on stage, and neither delivered any knockout answers to questions from moderators or Facebook viewers. Chafee, while smiling and generally upbeat, seemed taken aback by many of the questions—stressing at least three times during his various responses that he remained “free of scandal” while serving in elected jobs in Rhode Island. Chafee at times also seemed vague on the facts of both his past votes and his intentions as President. Many observers say he missed the opportunity to distinguish himself on that stage while standing near the more well-known candidates.

Jim Webb seemed, on many occasions, stilted and awkward, slow to respond and giving few resonant policy reasons for Democratic voters to choose him over the other candidates on stage. A moderate on many issues, even center-right on others, Webb nevertheless sought gamely to outline what he saw as his long-standing commitment to some progressive causes. In addition, Webb seemed unable to deploy his strongest assets—foreign policy experience and military expertise—even when given the opportunity to weigh-in on those issues. Webb also expressed frustration with the debate’s format, which he said was giving him limited opportunity to outline his proposals and beliefs.

Some on CNN’s post-debate discussion panel acknowledged openly that time may be running out for Chafee and Webb, and that if their fundraising dries up completely, the two may be forced to suspend campaigning. That would leave only O’Malley to challenge what has so far been a two-person race for the top spot. Harvard professor and author Larry Lessig has so far not met the Democratic Party's criteria of polling numbers of at least one percent, though he did manage to raise enough cash to be taken seriously by the polling firms.

Many Democratic insiders were breathing a sigh of relief by Wednesday morning. Clinton’s debate performance, thought problematic at times, was error free and solid enough to finally reassure supporters, fundraisers, donors and potential donors that Clinton’s 2016 campaign would not be a repeat of her disastrous 2008 run for President. Political pros say that her campaign is now armed with the ability to immediately begin building momentum. Clinton must quickly turn the narrative around: Sanders still leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire—two early and critical caucus and primary states. Clinton’s positive debate performance may reassure some Sanders’ followers to reconsider Clinton.

But Clinton’s most important strategic plus may have come in the form of how to deal with the man who was not in the room; her strong debate performance may have been sufficient, a few Democratic insiders says, to dissuade Joe Biden from entering the race. If Clinton can simplify the narrative for Democrats over the next weeks and months, presenting the choice as one between Bernie Sanders and herself, many observers believe that she improves her own odds. That means encouraging Biden to stay on the sidelines.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Is Rubio the Candidate to Watch Over the Next Weeks?; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; October 7, 2015.

FBI Recovering Clinton Emails; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; September 23, 2015.