Democratic debate dissected

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The five major Democratic candidates for president debated for two hours on CNN Tuesday night, the first time former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley got to share the national limelight with front-runner Hillary Clinton and her major challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

How did O’Malley do? Here are reactions by Len Lazarick, Len Foxwell, Barry Rascovar, Rick Vatz and Blaine Taylor

Outshined by Hillary and Bernie

Len Lazarick

Tuesday night we got to see why Hillary Clinton leads the pack. She is excellent on the debate stage — poised, articulate, in her element, knowledgeable, competent, at least an even match with any of the Republicans we’ve now seen twice in similar settings.

Bernie Sanders showed why, to the surprise of most pundit,s he has become her chief challenger. He is laser focused on income inequality, the decline of the middle class, the outsized influence of the superrich, the economic dominance of financial institutions and big corporations.

The economy has been stagnant for much of the U.S. population, and Sanders is channeling their seething dissatisfaction. He is so focused on what he considers the real issues that he could easily say “enough about her damn emails,” eliciting a real laugh from Clinton, not one of those fake Hillary laughs.

They both outshined O’Malley, partly because the questions from the CNN moderators, and then the candidates’ own interaction, favored Clinton and Sanders. You could hear O’Malley futilely trying to break in and get some attention.

He did well enough when he had the floor, although his opening statement had that highfalutin tone that comes across as heartfelt insincerity.

Better than the other two

He did not fare well in the first question which had him defending his zero tolerance policing strategy as mayor, reminding voters of the Baltimore riots in the spring and undermining one of his basic themes: I have governed for 14 years and governed well.

O’Malley certainly did better than the other two men on the stage: former Virginia senator Jim Webb, a stiff policy wonk who might make a good secretary of defense or maybe even a commander-in-chief if somebody else well was doing the political stuff; and former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee, who comes across as a bit loopy.

O’Malley has solid stands on issues that should appeal to progressive Democrats, and he can articulate them well. He has a good liberal record of running a good liberal state — and nobody on the stage was worried about increasing taxes as he often did as governor, certainly not Bernie Sanders who has a lot of ways he’d like to raise taxes on Wall Street and the wealthy.

O’Malley just did not seem to make the case of how he would be more competent and thoughtful than Clinton, or more passionate about the economic problems of the country than Sanders. With that in mind, which of the early voting states can O’Malley win against those two?

And if Joe Biden got into the race, he would even lose his edge as the middle-class Irish Catholic lawyer.

No breakthough for O’Malley

Len Foxwell

Political Strategist

The winner of the debate is the one who came in with the most to lose, and that was Hillary Clinton. She avoided memorable, game-changing mistakes, adroitly deflected direct hits on her perceived areas of weakness — such as her Senate vote to authorize the war in Iraq, the email controversy and her oft-critiqued tendency to modify her positions for the sake of political expediency — and took opportunities to connect with the party’s progressive base on domestic policy issues such as handgun safety.

I suspect that her steady performance this evening will soothe the nerves of many of her supporters and donors.

Sanders: Authenticity and principle

Bernie Sanders came across as a man of authenticity and principle, and his systemic critique of the American political system — and, specifically, the linkage that he draws between the control of the process by wealthy special interests and the nation’s current economic inequality — will assuredly resonate with those who wish to register their dissatisfaction with politics as usual, are searching for an alternative to a Clinton nomination they regard as inevitable, or both.

It’s not hard to understand how he has generated a substantial and vocal following among those on the left flank of the Democratic Party.

That said, he did virtually nothing this evening to expand his political base; to the contrary, his spirited defense of democratic socialism and his call for a revolution, regardless of the substantive merits of his arguments, come across as jarringly radical for someone who aspires to be the nominee of one of the two major political parties. His candidacy should continue to serve as a useful protest vehicle for disaffected constituencies within the Democratic coalition, but I don’t believe that he should be regarded as a credible contender for the Democratic nomination.

Martin O’Malley needed a breakthrough performance this evening to climb out of the low single digits and establish himself as a credible, ideologically mainstream alternative to Hillary Clinton. In my mind, that didn’t occur this evening.

While he had a few impressive moments earlier in the evening — I believe he registered an articulate defense of his criminal justice policies in Baltimore City, and fared well in a three-way exchange on gun control legislation with Clinton and Sanders — he appeared to recede into the background as the evening wore on. Moreover, he continues to suffer, I believe, from a soaring and excessively rehearsed rhetorical style at moments when a less formal, more conversational style would be more appropriate.  He performed credibly on an evening when that simply wasn’t enough.

Big Dog Clinton, angry orator Sanders, and O’Malley best of the rest

Barry Rascovar

Throughout the evening, the Big Dog in the room was Hillary Clinton. She started strong and finished strongest, the only one who gave nuanced, pragmatic answers on how to solve vexing, seemingly intractable problems. She led the charge in denouncing Republicans and the National Rifle Association and made it clear she will fight the hardest for women’s rights.

Bernie Sanders wins the blue ribbon for most emotionally compelling rhetoric, though it frequently veered into unreality. He must have denounced rapacious billionaires a dozen times. He admitted he’s leading a revolution, not presenting proposals that are achievable. If you want to elect an angry orator, Bernie’s your man.

As for Martin O’Malley, he was clearly the Best of the Rest. His poll ratings should rise, perhaps even edging into double digits. He achieved his goal after a shaky start with his voice quavering. His defense of his zero-tolerance police policy as Baltimore mayor wasn’t persuasive.

And he made the biggest gaffe of the evening, mistakenly saying that Bashir Assad (rather than Vladimir Putin) had invaded Syria — undermining his credibility on foreign policy. Still, our man Martin performed well enough to spread the word that he could be an up-and-coming future star of the party. It would take a major miracle for him to become a real contender this year, but as the late Judge Edgar Silver would remind him, “The best is yet to come.”

Love fest for Hillary did not shake up the race

Richard E. Vatz

Towson University

The first Democratic debate had the potential to shake up the apparent order-by-polls of candidates Hillary Clinton first, followed by Bernie Sanders and then by the most significant non-participant, Vice President Joe Biden. The other participants, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Senator and Governor Lincoln Chafee all brought a certain unpredictability enhanced by desperation, due to their very low polling numbers.

Mrs. Clinton, whose last televised debate was in 2008, has reversed positions on a variety of issues, including current opposition to the Bush-era Iraq war, opposition to the Pacific Rim Trade deal, and support of gay marriage and others. On the less controversial change on gay marriage, Ms. Clinton was lovingly teased on Saturday Night Live. The first Democratic debate for the presidential nomination of 2016 was not much rougher on her.

In the debate, there was only one incongruous line in the opening statements: O’Malley’s “We need new leadership.” Was this a shot at President Obama after O’Malley complimented his leadership?

Debate Moderator Anderson Cooper asked tough questions throughout, although his follow-ups were not quite as tough. He also never questioned the representation that the war on Iraq was based on Bush administration lies, a premise that is highly debatable, to say the least.

Cooper asks each about his/her weaknesses regarding electability: Clinton’s flip-flopping, Sanders’ socialism, O’Malley’s zero-tolerance policies, Chaffee’s wild political changes, and Webb’s prior right-wing statements regarding affirmative action. None directly answered the question, but all made the argument that their policies yielded a better status quo and will yield a better situation than what we have now. Cooper was less aggressive on questioning the precepts of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Only Webb asserted the notion that “All Lives Matter” — briefly.

The disproportional amount of time accorded to candidates Clinton and Sanders was indefensible. Clinton brilliantly focused on background checks as the only gun control issue and made Sanders look weak. O’Malley took an atypical example to argue for gun control and similarly made Sanders look weak on the issue.

Asked about her position on Russia as Secretary of State, Clinton claimed we have to stand up to Russia but then compliments President Obama for negotiating with Russia.  No one challenges her inconsistency, an area of possible differentiating of the candidates.

No one on stage but Cooper questioned frontrunner Clinton on her emails, her flip-flops or her devastating failures and lack of successes in foreign policy, three material issues as to whether she is qualified to be president. Sanders gratuitously exonerated her by saying her use of a private server was not a legitimate issue. Only Chafee meekly asserted it was an important issue. O’Malley agreed it was the wrong issue to discuss. Toward the end, O’Malley took on Clinton on one of the weeds: her inconsistency on the Glass-Steagall Act, deregulating banks.

Sanders attributed his seeking conscientious objector status as being linked to the indefensible exigencies of the Vietnam deal. No one criticized him. When articulating government hyper-expenditures, no one, including Cooper, asked basic questions, such as who would pay for them. Finally, at the end of the debate, Webb generally pointed out that someone would have to pay for all of Sanders’ recommendations.

For most irresponsible liberal policy propositions — Sanders’ free tuition at all public colleges and hyper-raises in the minimum wage, for example — there was no stated disagreement whatsoever.

To wrest Clinton’s position from the top of Democrats, more confrontation was necessary, but no one on stage was seriously interested in doing so.

In tonight’s debate the critical questions were how did the candidates do substantively with especially the Democratic audience, and how did their performance affect the Democratic constituency. The mostly love-fest that ensued does not generally allow upending a leading candidate. The lack of any significant direct challenges to Hillary Clinton, despite the strong performance by O’Malley, should pave the way for her nomination, unless Joe Biden should unexpectedly enter the race.

In that case, the next debate will be seen as the all-important debate. If Biden does not enter the race, the nomination will be Hillary’s.

Professor Vatz teaches political rhetoric at Towson University

JFK without the accent

Blaine Taylor

Author and former Democratic candidate for Senate, Congress

He physically looked the most like a President, namely JFK, and also sounded like him, minus the Massachusetts accent. His good self-introduction presented well his 14 years of executive experience of getting things done, and was also Reaganesque in citing that wages haven’t improved in the last 12 years, ala “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” in 1980. Attacked on his past positions, he defended them all very well and to the point, backing down on none of them.

He accurately cited all the landmark legislation that he backed and signed into law in Maryland, was impassioned, forceful, and used gestures effectively. His personal debate with Sen. Sanders was both unexpected and forceful, and he also stood toe to toe with frontrunner Clinton, thus avoiding being minimalized.

His wishes for the future were stated clearly and without any hedging. Again — ala JFK’s 1962 pledge to put a man on the moon — he several times asserted his goal of a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050, thus establishing a goal beyond today’s immediate concerns.

His closing statement was both classy and modest, with his breakout line being, “We need to speak to the goodness in our country,” ala RFK in 1968. This was his moment, and he rose to it.