The three candidates vying for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination squared off Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, just one week before the state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley shared moments of concord and contrast as they made their final nationally televised pitches before the official start of the 2016 electoral cycle — even if they never shared the Drake University stage.
True, each contender was there, but because this was not a sanctioned debate under rules established by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the three presidential hopefuls had to appear separately. Billed by sponsor CNN as a town hall, it differed from the four DNC-approved candidate forums in another significant way: The event took place on a weeknight during prime time.
While the Republicans will air their seventh prime-time debate on Thursday, the Democrats scheduled their four official debates on weekend nights, mostly adjacent to national holidays and often opposite major sporting events. This burying of the debates at times when TV viewership is typically low has been criticized by O’Malley and Sanders and is widely seen by campaign observers as an awkward attempt by the DNC and its head, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to preserve Clinton’s front-runner status.
But that strategy (for lack of a better word) now appears flawed in two ways: Sanders has drawn even with or moved ahead of Clinton in many opinion polls in Iowa and New Hampshire — which holds its primary election Feb. 9 — and Republicans, whose weeknight debates have dominated television news ratings, have garnered the lion’s share of coverage over the last six months.
So Monday’s forum seemed like an attempt to recapture some electoral energy. As was the case in all the official Democratic debates, the three surviving candidates proved spirited and, on the whole, accurate advocates for their party and their platforms.
The vision thing
Sanders was first to address the assembled Iowans. He took on the criticism that while he might have a grand and positive vision for the United States, he lacks the pragmatism and experience necessary to implement even incremental change.
In response, he turned to his long record of government service. “I am probably the most progressive member in the U.S. Senate,” he said. “But I have over the years, not only in the Senate but in the House, worked with Republicans when there was common ground. When I was in the House, in a number of years I got more amendments passed on the floor of the House working with Republicans than anyone else.” He highlighted recent work with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., to pass comprehensive repairs to the veterans’ health system.
Sanders reiterated a challenge to the status quo that has been one of the hallmarks of his career. Criticizing a campaign finance system that helps elect a government sensitive to the concerns of the rich donor class, he seemed to say that an incrementalist approach is not enough.
“If we are serious about rebuilding the American middle class, if we are serious about providing paid family and medical leave to all of our people, if we are serious about ending the disgrace of having so many of our children live in poverty, the real way to do it is to have millions of Americans finally stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ for people to get engaged in the political process, to finally demand that Washington represent all of us, not just a handful of very wealthy people,” he said.
It was a call for involvement that is necessary not only to Sanders’ vision but also to his campaign. The latest Iowa polls that rely on samples of likely caucus attendees tend to give Clinton the edge, while surveys that use a broader definition — anticipating a larger turnout of first-time participants — put Sanders even or ahead. It was an unanticipated increase in new voters that helped Barack Obama upset Clinton in 2008.
Sanders had the chance to revisit and refine many of his trusted talking points. Asked repeatedly by host Chris Cuomo whether a Sanders administration would bring back “the era of Big Government,” the candidate tried to explain how the current system has redistributed wealth from the working class to very top of the economic ladder.
He said that what his critics might label tax hikes are more than made up for by eliminating health insurance premiums, rebuilding infrastructure and expanding aid programs such as Social Security. “The era of protecting the middle class and working families is certainly something that I will make happen,” he said.
Speaking to the goodness
Next onstage was O’Malley. A distant third in opinion polls, the relative youngster in the race (he is 53, compared with 74-year-old Sanders and 68-year-old Clinton) has often had to plead for equal attention in DNC-sanctioned debates. At the town hall, given equal time, the candidate, jacketless with rolled-up shirtsleeves, moved about the stage (and once stepped off it) to express the excitement he says he still feels about his presidential run.
“I'm honored to be able to offer my candidacy in the company of Secretary Clinton and Sen. Sanders,” said O’Malley. “If you look at our Democratic primary and the debates we've had, we're certainly doing a much better job of speaking to the goodness within our country rather than to fear and anger and loathing like we've heard from Republicans.”
The first question for him from the audience challenged the onetime Baltimore mayor for the zero tolerance policing he advocated at the city and state level and how it exacerbated racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
It seemed a particularly tough question, but it is one O’Malley has had to field on several occasions since he was interrupted by a Black Lives Matter protest last summer during a candidates’ forum at Netroots Nation in Phoenix. This time, he did say “black lives matter” without trying to qualify it, but he continued to defend his tough-on-crime approach as one that brought down rates of violent crime and saved lives.
O’Malley said he wanted to improve “how we police the police” but immediately returned to what he thought was a successful program without clearly addressing the issue of racial justice.
In general he seemed to face the toughest audience interrogation — on health care costs, help for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, aid to small farms and his pitch to younger voters. He was able to pivot deftly to his talking points, which were usually well articulated and mostly in line with the populist and activist tone of this year’s Democratic campaign. But for the man well back in the race, it still felt like a practice run, albeit one that was very well rehearsed.
If being well rehearsed were the answer, then Clinton, the final candidate to speak Monday, should be a lock for the nomination.
After all, she has been there before.
Still, there was little stiff or stale in her answers. Clinton was pitched softballs on Benghazi, Libya, and on Obama’s near endorsement of her in a recent Politico interview. Grilled on her experience with issues of income inequality and her lack of traction with younger voters, she gave what seemed the longest answers of the night, the performance often drifting from stump speech to memoir.
“You know look, I've been around a long time. People have thrown all kinds of things at me. And, you know, I can't keep up with it. I just keep going forward," she said. “They fall by the wayside. They come up with these outlandish things. They make these charges. I just keep going forward, because there's nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me, and I'm still standing.”
She then went on to detail her fights during President Bill Clinton’s administration to push through health care reform.
But Hillary Clinton, like Sanders and O’Malley before her, brought energy to the Des Moines arena and participated in what each candidate praised as a respectful debate on substantive issues.
Those were comments meant to draw a sharp contrast with the tenor and substance of GOP debates. While that was obvious to those onstage and maybe to those in the audience, questions remain about who and how many in the general electorate are noticing.
For while the frequency of the Republican debates has caused the ratings to dip a bit over the months, the GOP events consistently outdraw the Democratic debates by millions of viewers. And if you are a fan of Sanders, O’Malley or Clinton or the Democrats’ platform this election cycle, you likely think this — and the DNC’s hide-and-seek debate strategy — is the first loss of 2016.