On Tuesday night, the five contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination assembled in Las Vegas, NV, for their first debate of the primary season. Moderated by Anderson Cooper, the debate not only gave the candidates a nationally-televised opportunity to present their policies and positions, but also allowed them the opportunity to accomplish their individual strategic objectives.
Former Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, needed to take full advantage of the nationally-televised debate to introduce himself and his platform to a voting base that, for the most part, knows nothing about him. O’Malley also needed to endear himself to potential donors and bundlers, while former Senators Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb just needed to remind people that they exist. Chafee floundered throughout the debate as he unsuccessfully tried to attack Clinton. During one particularly cringe-worthy moment, he admonished Anderson Cooper for “being too harsh” on him.
Webb, in one of the most bizarre answers of the night, informed us that #WhiteAppalachianLivesMatter. Vermont Senator, Bernie Sanders, needed to prove that his unexpected ascension to second place was not a fluke, and that he is capable of winning the general election. However, it was former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who had the most on the line. Plagued by weeks of bad press and declining poll numbers, it was imperative that Clinton delivered a performance that would ease the fears surrounding her elect-ability in the face of the ongoing email scandal. She did this, and more, establishing herself as the clear winner by the end of the night.
Clinton, whose commitment to progressive values has been a major concern among the Democratic voting base, clearly came prepared to convince viewers that she was ‘all in’ for the populist movement sweeping the nation. She reverted to the same argument she has used before regarding inconsistencies in her stances on these issues, citing “new information” as the cause in her change of opinion. When directly challenged by Cooper to self-identify as a moderate or progressive, Clinton responded with arguably the strongest line of the night: “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
A self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, Sanders was clearly the most left-wing candidate on the stage. However, he has repeatedly voted against implementing stricter legislation on gun distribution, putting himself at odds with the progressive base. When pressed to explain his voting record, Sanders attempted to place more emphasis on access to mental healthcare as a better means of gun control, but Cooper immediately steered him back towards his opposition to gun regulation.
Sanders was then forced to admit that, in certain circumstances, he did not believe gun distributors and manufacturers should be legally accountable for the actions of their customers. Clinton, who was clearly eager to highlight a rare liberal edge over Sanders, wasted no time in tearing into him for voting against the Brady bill five times. Sanders countered that his status as a “senator from a rural state,” required him to have a more complex stance on gun control. O’Malley countered that the’ ruralness’ of an area did not make it immune to the necessity of gun regulation, citing the successful implementation of his gun control legislation in Western Maryland; an area traditionally associated with hunting.
One of O’Malley’s stronger moments came when he was called on to discuss his position on immigration reform. He noted his success in passing a state-level version of the DREAM Act in Maryland, which granted in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. O’Malley also pledged to offer undocumented immigrants full subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and to go “further than President Obama has on DACA and DAPA.” He was rewarded with thunderous applause after delivering a sharp admonishment of the inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric that has become a defining feature of the Republican primary race.
Compared to the sweeping reforms that O’Malley promised, Clinton’s proposals were significantly more modest, as she only offered undocumented immigrants the ability to buy insurance on Obamacare exchanges. When asked if she agreed with O’Malley’s plan to offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, Clinton demurred, stating that she would leave it up to each individual states to decide.
Juan Carlos Lopez, of CNN en Espanol, questioned Sander’s commitment to the Latino voters after he voted against immigration reform in 2007. Sanders defended his voting history, specifying that he supported “comprehensive immigration reform,” and that the particular legislation in question had “guest-worker provisions in it which the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about being semi-slavery.”
Cooper broached the subject of income inequality, asking Sanders what he would do to rectify the growing divide. Sanders replied with his populist-friendly five point plan: rebuilding crumbling infrastructure, ensuring equal pay for women, ending current harmful trade policies, making public colleges and universities tuition-free, and raising the minimum wage to $15. Clinton noted that she also had a five point plan, but did not elaborate or provide specifics.
In another strong moment for O’Malley, he listed examples of how he chose to tackle income inequality as Governor of Maryland, such as raising the minimum wage, increasing investments in infrastructure, and going four straight years without raising college tuition. He then entered into a back and forth with Sanders and Clinton over Clinton’s refusal to reinstate Glass-Steagall. Clinton defended her position, arguing that she would rather focus her efforts on curbing the emerging threat of shadow-banking.
Sanders was asked to elaborate on his proposal to make public colleges free, and to clarify his position on taxpayers shouldering the burden of tuition for wealthy college students. After equating the value of a college diploma to that of a high school diploma 50 years ago, Sanders went on to argue that a college education should be universally guaranteed; regardless of income. He pointed to his plan of implementing a “tax on Wall Street speculation” as the main source of funding for these proposed tuition-free public colleges and universities. Clinton also advocated for tuition-free public colleges and universities. However, under her plan, financial aid students would be required to work 10 hours a week.
O’Malley pledged to extend investor tax credits for solar and wind energy, which is part of his plan to shift America to a “100% clean electric grid by 2050.” Sanders highlighted his role as one of the earliest proponents of climate change prevention, citing his introduction of the first climate change legislation, “which called for a tax on carbon.” He stressed the necessity of campaign finance reform, explaining how the climate-change denying fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican party in order to ensure their interests are protected.
Clinton offered her history of combating climate change, noting that she was a key player in getting China to sign an international climate change reduction agreement for the first time. However, she experienced a brief low point in the debate when criticized on her change in position on the Keystone pipeline, stating, “I never took a position on Keystone until I took a position on Keystone.”
Black Lives Matter
Unlike the participants in the GOP debate last month, the candidates in last night’s debate did not shirk from reaffirming their commitments to criminal justice reform and civil rights. Clinton called for an increase in reform, specifying the necessity of body cameras. O’Malley, who has repeatedly found himself in the cross-hairs of civil rights and criminal justice reform activists, for the law enforcement policies he instituted as Mayor of Baltimore, sought to re-brand himself as an ally instead of an enemy. Cooper tapped into the activists’ frustration when he pressed O’Malley to explain his support for these policies, which resulted in the arrests of 15.6% of the city’s residents.
O’Malley acknowledged that arrests did peak in 2003, but cited the subsequent decline as an indicator that his hardline stance on crime had made the city safer, instead of contributing to the tension between civilians and police officers; as many activists have accused. When directly asked if black lives matter, O’Malley’s answer was a clear indication that he had learned from his previous missteps on the topic of race relations. He went on to state that “if we were burying white, young, poor men in these numbers we would be marching in the streets and there would be a different reaction.” However, it was Sanders who put forth the most passionate show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Sanders listed Sandra Bland’s death in police custody, institutional racism, and the fact that the U.S. currently has more people in jail than China, as reasons for the necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement. Such avowals of solidarity have come to be expected from Sanders, especially after the proactive steps he took in the aftermath of his campaign’s confrontation with the Black Lives Matter movement.