My overall view of the first democratic debate of the 2016 nomination contest probably tracks with the consensus. I should disclose that I’ve contributed to the Sanders campaign and support it, even though my views on some issues are more conservative.
In brief, Clinton showed herself a capable and exceedingly well-prepared politician. I jokingly commented on social media that this encapsulates her biggest advantage and her biggest liability. But, to be honest, it really is much more of an asset than anything else. She’s extremely smart, experienced, and skilled at politics. She is also surrounded by people with strong messaging skills—at least when it comes to focused activities, such as debates.
Sanders came across as he does in all other campaign settings: passionate, focused on the issues, and unwilling to go after his rivals in a deeply personal way. It reinforced suspicions among some that the rationale for his candidacy resides in a desire to push the eventual nominee—that is, Clinton—to the left on economic issues. That may have been his original intent, but he remains the only serious alternative to Clinton; my guess is that he takes the support that he’s generated very seriously.
Sanders’ performance, and the reaction it generated, likely come from his “unorthodox” debate preparation:
Sanders’ team sees the first Democratic debate as a chance to introduce a fairly niche candidate to a national audience. So his team intends to let him do what he’s been doing. Far from preparing lines to deploy against Clinton — let alone O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee or Jim Webb — Sanders plans to dish policy details, learned through a handful of briefings with experts brought in by his campaign.
At some point, the Sanders campaign is going to need to make a choice about whether to pivot to a more orthodox approach. Given that one of Sanders’ major asset is his genuine, rather than affected, authenticity, this presents something of a challenge.
I respect Webb a great deal, but I don’t think that tacking to the right on issues like Iran is either good politics or good policy. He’s out of step with the Democratic electorate, and he has no chance at winning the nomination. Chafee’s performance was poor, and does nothing to dispel the key question of his campaign: “why are you even running?”
O’Malley, on the other hand, was comparatively impressive. His attempts to outflank Clinton on the left—particularly on foreign policy—weren’t perfectly implemented, but they point in the direction of how to press these points. For example:
I believe that, as president, I would not be so quick to pull for a military tool. I believe that a no-fly zone in Syria, at this time, actually, Secretary, would be a mistake.
You have to enforce no-fly zones, and I believe, especially with the Russian air force in the air, it could lead to an escalation because of an accident that we would deeply regret.
I support President Obama. I think we have to play a long game, and I think, ultimately — you want to talk about blunders? I think [Putin’s] invasion of Syria will be seen as a blunder.
And this, unsurprisingly, is what I want to talk about. Two of Clinton’s answers on foreign policy troubled me. But for different reasons. Continue reading