Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Clinton wins Democratic debate, but what else did we learn?

Clinton wins Democratic debate, but what else did we learn?
Published 15 Oct 2015   Follow @j_s_bowen

It was always expected to be about two people, but by the end of its near three-hour run, the first Democratic presidential debate ahead of the 2016 poll had been reduced to a conversation on just one: Hillary Clinton.

The extent to which this was true could be seen in the way the other presumptive headliner, Senator Bernie Sanders was at one point asked by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper to respond to the question: 'does she have the right stuff?' Sanders wisely tried to steer the conversation back to his own record – as did, at many points, the other candidates in former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafeee and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb. But on the strength of last night's performance, the answer of many others in the audience and watching at home would likely have been 'yes'.

Clinton and her staff have obviously been working to develop a new, warmer style of public presentation, which has of course been somewhat unfairly demanded based solely on her gender, given the praise Sanders receives for essentially being the Larry David-sounding cranky old man of politics.

The former Secretary of State wielded a near perma-smile while delivering some of the night's most memorable and forceful lines. This included one of the field's rarer forays into taking down Republicans, rather than her contemporaries on stage. Pressed on whether her support for state-funded paid parental leave would be another extension of the big government derided by the right, she countered, 'They don't mind having big government to interfere with a woman's right to choose', thereby drawing in the current debate on defunding Planned Parenthood. [fold]

Clinton was already leading in most polls, and likely received a bump after last night. Still, the primaries, and the whole election cycle, have a long way to run, meaning it's important to remain focused on the issues rather than one particular candidate. In this regard there were a few significant conclusions to be drawn from the debate. 

Clinton has clearly moved to the left

Despite quite predictably refusing to share any of Sanders' association with socialism, and praising a capitalist system that had produced the 'the greatest middle class in the history of the world', Clinton has firmly embraced the mantle of 'progressive' and seems prepared to back this up with firm policy commitments, including locking herself into opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an agreement which has proven increasingly unpopular with many on the left side of American politics.

Clinton stopped short of saying the US should emulate strong social democracies such as Denmark in the level of its state commitments, but did express strong support for policies that wouldn't be out of place in those countries, including paid parental leave, a stronger social safety net, and cheaper (albeit far from universal) access to tertiary education. She is essentially offering a more palatable and 'Americanised' version of Sanders' more resonant viewpoints.

Guns could finally be a major issue

The pointed manner in which O'Malley responded with 'the National Rifle Association' – and the enthusiastic response it drew from the crowd in Las Vegas – when questioned on the political enemy he was most proud of making, suggests recent mass shootings such as the one at Oregon's Umpqua Community College may have finally given Democrats the necessary drive to take on the issue.

In this respect, there could be serious problems for Sanders as the campaign progresses. The Senator's record on gun control, including repeatedly opposing the Brady Bill requiring federal background checks and waiting periods on gun buyers, was severely challenged, particularly by Clinton. His defence that he represented a 'rural state', and therefore operated under different rules, didn't hold water.

Of course, the newfound commitment to tackling the powerful gun lobby will be severely tested when the eventual candidate faces a general election. Much will likely depend on the national reaction to President Obama's mooted action, including perhaps an executive order on the issue, prior to departing.

Climate change, and China, deserved more probing

One of the bigger failings of the CNN broadcast – alongside the fact it allocated stereotypical question duties to its non-white, non-male comperes – was the failure to treat climate change as a major election issue, despite all but Webb listing it as one of their priorities in the opening remarks. The topic was relegated to one publicly sourced question, which nonetheless allowed for some significant pledges to be restated, including O'Malley's commitment to the US moving to 100% renewable energy by 2050, via executive order if necessary.

In keeping with his odd-man-out routine, Webb was also notable for turning attention to China, which he repeatedly called America's 'greatest strategic threat'. The Virginian was criticised for bringing up the topic when ostensibly dealing with the Middle East, but his shoe-horning did reflect a general lack of focus on the implications of Beijing's rise. This was curious in light of continued Chinese cyberattacks on US commercial interests, currency manipulation and territorial disputes with US allies, as well as the many areas of cooperation between the two nations. It also contrasted with the way the Republicans, Donald Trump primarily, have used China as a straw man for tackling the implications of largely US-led globalisation policies.

The spectre of Iraq refuses to die

In the absence of China, the main foreign policy question focused on Syria, which was understandable in light of pantomime villain Vladimir Putin's growing entanglement in that conflict. But the focus on the Middle East also continued to hark back more than a decade, to the voting records of the contenders on the 2003 Iraq invasion, which naturally continues to pose a challenge for Clinton. 

As the campaign progresses, further lines are likely to be drawn between the frontrunner's contribution to precipitating that disaster and her current prescription for dealing with its legacy. With her advocacy of a Syrian no-fly zone, Clinton favours more of a strong-arm approach than do the other contenders, and Obama as well. O'Malley appropriately framed the ongoing debate as an age-old one with his invocation of John Quincy Adams' warning against the US going abroad 'seeking monsters to destroy'.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You may also be interested in