Chuck Burton / AP

Paris attacks change focus for Democratic debate

Analysis: CBS shifts from economic themes to focus on terrorism and national security — can candidates connect the dots?

Friday’s Paris attacks, which left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more wounded, serves as a stark reminder that the news is often bigger than the people who look to shape it.

The three Democrats running for president — former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — had reportedly been preparing all week for a debate, sponsored by CBS, focused on the economy. But when the candidates take the stage at 9 p.m. at Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium in Des Moines, Iowa, they will instead be faced with questions about terrorism and national security.

“It is the right time to ask all the related questions that come to mind,” Steve Capus, executive editor of the CBS evening news, told the New York Times. Capus said they were in the middle of rehearsing a debate built squarely on economic issues when news from Paris first came in. “There is no question that the emphasis changes dramatically.”

“The entire world is looking to the White House,” he added. “This is exactly what the president is going to have to face.”

Questions on foreign policy and national security are generally believed to advantage Clinton. Beyond her years as head of the State Department, she has an international presence dating back to her time as first lady and extending through her work with the Clinton Foundation, a non-profit organization she started with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, focused on “global interdependence.”

But with great experience also comes great responsibility. Clinton’s time in the Obama White House ties her to the policies of an administration that has come under attack for its handling of conflicts in Iraq and Syria, specifically for its strategies to counter the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The armed group has claimed responsibility for the violence in Paris.

Clinton’s role in U.S. policy on Libya has proven one of her biggest potential tripwires, at least in the eyes of Republicans. The deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi in 2012, has spawned countless Congressional investigations and near-constant conversation in conservative media. Clinton, an advocate for military intervention in the conflict that ousted Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, has defended her beliefs, going so far as to praise the recent Libyan elections during the last presidential debate.

The debate’s shift from the economy to national security would appear to be a setback for Sanders, especially at a time when many feel he needs to communicate his core message to a broad electorate. His focus on income disparity and an under-regulated financial sector fit well with the original focus of tonight’s event, and recent polling shows voters think Sanders is as good or better than Clinton on those issues.

But economic worries and questions of national security are far from mutually exclusive. The debate over economic austerity and its effect on domestic security, for example, has been revived in the last 24 hours. In the wake of the January killings at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, French authorities said that, even though some of the attackers were known to the government, they hadn’t had the resources to track all of them.

Tonight’s debate is also likely to include questions on immigration, especially in light of the European refugee crisis and the intense focus of GOP presidential hopefuls on deporting undocumented immigrants from the United States.

None of this is outside the realm of an economic discussion. In his stump speeches, Sanders often addresses the thwarted opportunities of individuals and the competing priorities of a nation. But his ability to make those connections clear to voters who care about these issues is a bumpy work in progress — as when he tried to link his core economic message to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement.

For the third candidate in the race, O’Malley, the shift away from domestic issues could marginalize his candidacy further. He has staked much of his campaign on his record as governor and as mayor of Baltimore, and on his proposals for reforms in policing and criminal justice. Here, too, there is an argument to be made that such a discussion has direct relevance to domestic terrorism.

The current Secretary of State, John Kerry, tried to frame such violence as a law enforcement issue in 2004, when he was a candidate for president — a move that got him into more than a little rhetorical trouble. That argument could be made again today in the wake of the Paris attacks, but whether there is any room for such a frame in this political climate — or in O’Malley’s campaign strategy book — seems doubtful.

It is also doubtful that, given the solemn and charged mood so soon after the deaths in Paris, the candidates or moderators could fill two full debate hours with varied and original takes on security and terrorism. Capus, in his talk with the Times, seemed to leave the door open for shifting back to economic or other domestic concerns at some point in the evening. Whether Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley can deftly make that pivot could be one of the more interesting points in tonight’s debate. It could also be one of the most important.

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