Drake University Democratic Debate

Drake University Photo Credit Cedar Rapids Gazette

Drake University Photo Credit Cedar Rapids Gazette

The winner in last night’s debate at Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium was the American people as Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders discussed, and actually debated issues that matter. This is in sharp contrast with the multi-level Republican debates.

Only 700 people had tickets to attend, so I closed the door of my study, put on my headphones and shut down all browsers except the CBS live stream. I took notes using Microsoft Outlook.

It is ironic that Twitter, a debate co-sponsor, was pretty useless once the questioning began. With an avalanche of more than a thousand Tweets per minute, it was more than a person could comprehend, let alone participate effectively in. I opted to listen to the actual debate.

From here, the race is between Clinton and Sanders. Martin O’Malley had his last chance to gain traction in the race, and he whiffed.

One of O’Malley’s campaign taglines is “new leadership.” He failed to demonstrate it last night. When directly asked about his lack of experience in international affairs, O’Malley dodged the question. He won’t break loose from low polling numbers by dodging key questions. Without more support, he lacks a path to win any of the four early states.

As noted previously, it is hard to find fault with O’Malley’s core positions. The trouble is with his narrative. His style of using personal anecdotes, pointing to what he did in Maryland, is part of the reason he isn’t getting traction despite solid Democratic policy positions. O’Malley says the country needs new leadership, but doesn’t provide meaningful evidence to back up his assertion he has that capacity.

Then there were two.

There is a lot to like about both Clinton and Sanders. As with the results of a single poll, there is not as much meaning in a single debate performance as some supporters assert. At the same time, Clinton is the better debater and it showed.

Clinton’s response to the question about her campaign contributions from Wall Street demonstrated her mastery of the debate form. She began with a curious statement about needing to “do more” to regulate Wall Street. She didn’t say the words, but essentially lit the fuse for Sanders and O’Malley to go off on their position of re-instating Glass Steagall. Clinton’s position is re-instating Glass Steagall is not enough, and she was able to frame the discussion on her terms.

Reforming Wall Street and reducing the influence of money in politics is Sanders’ signature issue. It appeared Clinton got Sanders’ goat because he brought Glass Steagall up in the next question even though it wasn’t the topic. As long as there is money in politics (which there will be forever) and presidents appoint financiers from Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan Chase to key positions in their administration (which Sanders said he would not do), the appearance of impropriety will exist. Clinton didn’t shake this completely, but defended herself well in the debate.

The other topic where Clinton was able to frame the debate to her advantage was about increasing the minimum wage. Sanders and O’Malley support the Democratic party platform plank to raise minimum wage to $15 per hour. Clinton supports $12 per hour.

In asking the question, Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register gave framing favorable to Clinton, mentioning the concerns of Alan Krueger over raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. Insiders would have known Clinton’s deviation from the party platform and that her position is partly a response to Krueger. As Clinton pointed out during the debate, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman agrees with her. While both Sanders and O’Malley piled on Clinton, she maintained the upper hand on this topic.

A couple of people remarked in social media about Sanders’ increasing hoarseness during the two hours. I was reminded of John Kerry having the same issue with losing his voice on the trail in 2004. Kerry made the decision to send running mate John Edwards to an event in Cedar Rapids so he could save his voice for an upcoming debate. It’s insider baseball, but as I listened to Sanders I thought he should have backed off some of his events the previous day to save his vocal chords. He was able to adequately speak, but the hoarseness was a distraction. Clinton was not without fault in this regard. She sounded like she needed a drink of water as her laughter cackled across the stage after her competitors said things she must have thought were outrageous.

Tony Leys of the Des Moines Register made this comment on Twitter:

Some don’t want to hear it, but the Democratic primary debates are about Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada period. While Sanders’ reference to bloated spending on the nuclear weapons complex may provide traction in New Hampshire, Clinton was the only candidate to use the reality of Terry Branstad’s Iowa effectively.

There are two more national debates before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.

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