The 2015 US Democratic Presidential Debate

The first US Democratic presidential debate kicked off in Las Vegas on October 13. For the most part, there was no considerable change in the polling of the candidates before and after the debate. Hillary Clinton still polls the highest as the front-runner and has reaffirmed her position as the preeminent moderate center-left Democrat – in her words: “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done”. Bernie Sanders also had a very strong performance and is still nipping at Hillary’s heels in the polls as the alternative far-left anti-establishment candidate who is more focused on across-the-board economic reform. Then there is Martin O’Malley, whose debate performance was notable but not enough to bring him to the level of Clinton and Sanders – he has consistently been trudging behind the two in the polls, primarily because, as noted by an article in The Atlantic, “Sanders has stolen his thunder as the progressive standard bearer”. Finally, the other two remaining candidates, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, performed abysmally (e.g. Chafee refusing to take responsibility for an unpopular senate vote he made and Webb awkwardly hinting that he had killed a man in the Vietnam War, etc.) and still hold their general positions as Who-the-hell-are-these-guys candidates. Overall, the debate may have served to clarify the positions of the candidates to less-informed voters but it was really a mere reiteration of each candidate’s general platform with no subsequent change in how they stand in the eyes of voters.

The debate in and of itself was not as interesting as the stark differences that can be drawn between it and the previous two Republican debates. First of all, the Democratic field is much less divided – there are only five candidates polling high enough to be in the debates. Compare this with the ten candidates in the first Republican debate and 11 in the second. Also, the two Republican debates were each preceded by second tier debates of lower polling candidates consisting of seven and four candidates respectively. The relative solidification of the Democratic Party, compared with the seemingly fragmented support of the GOP, grants Democratic candidates several advantages – primarily more air-time to vocalize their platform to American voters as well as more consolidated funding.

Democratic Presidential Candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shaking hands; Photo credit: Slate

Democratic Presidential Candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shaking hands;
Photo credit: Slate

Yet the most notable difference between the Democratic and Republican candidates is the political unity of the former. When compared to the Republicans, the Democratic candidates appear to have less disagreement in terms of policy. By contrast, in the Republican primaries there are several notable “camps”: there are the moderate establishment Republicans (e.g. Jeb Bush) who are focused on being center-right pragmatists, Tea-Party Republicans focused on social conservatism (e.g. Mike Huckabee), the libertarian-wing of the party e.g. (Rand Paul) and finally the outsider anti-immigration populist (and front-runner), Donald Trump. Besides a few differences in policy (e.g. gun control), the Democrats are for the most part in agreement when it comes to policy – the differences between them are, as is noted by The Atlantic, “more over degree than type”. This cohesion goes beyond their policy positions and was made apparent in the most interesting moment of the debate.

Hillary Clinton has been under-fire in recent months for her use of a private server for her emails while serving as Secretary of State. Conservatives have been especially critical of her, claiming that this server did not have proper security and thus, sensitive and confidential state information could have fallen into the wrong hands (foreign entities, hackers, etc.) during her time in office. In the middle of being questioned by the debate-moderator, Anderson Cooper, about her upcoming testimony to Congress over this email fiasco, Bernie Sanders interrupted saying:

“Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary [Hillary] is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails…. [The] middle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality… The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or oligarchy as a result of Citizen’s United. Enough of the emails! Let’s talk about the real issues facing America”.

This was followed by a roar of applause from the audience as well as Clinton and Sanders reaching across their podiums to shake hands. This one perplexing moment, which by all-standards was not “great politics” by Sanders, shows that the Democrats have not forgotten that there is a much more important general election following the primaries – and thus each candidate is more focused on showing how they are the candidate best suited to take on the Republicans rather than discrediting one another.

Robert Smith
Assistant External News Editor

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