Advertisement

Debate reveals Democrats as the only adults vying for presidency

More than any of the five Democrats who debated on CNN for two and a half hours last Tuesday night, the clear winners were their party and the American voters.

The civility and general substance of the first nationally televised competition for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination trumpeted the adult character of their party, compared to the kiddie carnival put on by their Republican counterparts in their first two debates.

Advertisement

It was not only the collective courtesy of the Democratic quintet that matched up favorably against Donald Trump and his party's merry band of insult-swappers; the Democrats' greater depth in grappling with critical issues separated their debate from that of their adversaries. Voters who tuned in could come away feeling they had learned quite a bit about the candidates beyond the boiler-plate pitches for applause, gasps or laughs served up earlier by the Republicans.

The early leads in the polls of Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders were reinforced by their lucid and detailed arguments for revitalizing the American middle class by promoting economic equality in the workplace.

Mr. Sanders showed no compulsion to tone down his radical proposals and rhetoric for taming Wall Street's banking and investing excesses, which have bred billionaires unwilling to cut in the middle-class producers of their immense wealth. And Ms. Clinton emerged from the furor over her email mishandlings to forcefully articulate a similar determination to combat economic inequality.

In the most striking moment of the debate, Mr. Sanders came to Ms. Clinton's rescue by heatedly declaring, "The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails." Ms. Clinton gleefully extended her hand and shook her unexpected benefactor's outstretched mitt.

The gesture by Mr. Sanders won applause both for his generosity and his eagerness to have the debate focus on the economic issue on which both agreed, if not with quite the same intensity. But Ms. Clinton clearly had a very strong night, even without Mr. Sanders' beneficence, projecting confidence in saying, "I know how to find common ground, and I know how to stand my ground."

This momentary togetherness did not prevent some pointed disagreements between the two, particularly on gun control. Ms. Clinton noted that Mr. Sanders, from rural Vermont, had opposed the Brady gun-control bill in Congress, as well as the Patriot Act authorizing the NSA surveillance of private phone conversations. He in turn disagreed with her advocacy of a no-fly zone over Syria, saying it would risk an undesirable clash with Russia.

Mr. Sanders by inference criticized Ms. Clinton's reliance on big-donor contributions from a super PAC, in contrast to his small-donor list, and defended his self-identification as a "democratic socialist" guided by a "moral compass" in terms of social welfare. Ms. Clinton called herself "a progressive who likes to get things done."

Such exchanges made the debate essentially a two-person affair, conducted within the bounds of civility. A third candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, weighed in along with former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee on Mr. Sanders' criticism of Ms. Clinton's 2002 vote authorizing the use of military force in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Mr. O'Malley showed himself to be informed and vigorous but unlikely to put much of a dent in either of the two leaders in the polls. Mr. Chafee looked weak in defending one questionable vote on grounds he had only been in the Senate a short time and was grieving over the death of his father. The fifth candidate, former Virginia Sen. James Webb, caused barely a blip, saying his record as a decorated Vietnam War veteran made him best qualified to be commander-in-chief.

The absence of Vice President Joe Biden, who declined an invitation, further enabled Ms. Clinton to shine and led to speculation that her strong showing now made it more unlikely he would enter the race.

As a group, though, the others did yeoman work in instructing their Republican counterparts on how to present a responsible party's case for winning public confidence in its ability to lead the nation in a troubled time. It remains to be seen whether their GOP rivals, caught in continuing mud-slinging debate, will take the suggestion and clean up their offensive act before their next encounter on Oct. 28 on CNBC in Boulder, Colo.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Advertisement
Advertisement