5 takeaways from the second Democratic debate

by PABLO ROA

With the presidential election less than a year away, the race for the nomination is heating up on both sides of the aisle.

Republican candidates met on the debate stage last week for their fourth debate of the primary season. Last night, the three remaining Democratic candidates met at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for their second debate.

The race for the Democratic nomination has dwindled to three candidates since the last debate, as Senators Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee dropped out earlier this month. Now the battle for the nomination is between former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, with all three meeting on the stage last night.

Without further ado, here are five takeaways from the second Democratic debate:


 1) Debate in the Shadow of Tragedy

Early in the day on Saturday, the last thing on the minds of many Americans was a presidential debate. The tragic events of Friday evening in Paris dominated the news worldwide on Saturday and captivated the hearts and minds of people around the planet.

While the debate went on as scheduled in spite of the attacks, the tragedy had a major impact on the structure and dynamic of the debate.  The candidates, moderators and spectators held a moment of silence for the victims prior to the debate. Candidates also offered their condolences in their opening statements.

As many expected would happen in light of Friday’s tragedy, the debate began with an intense and thorough discussion on foreign policy and how the U.S. is and should be dealing with foreign and domestic terrorist threats. Candidates offered their views on how to confront ISIL and other dangers that face the world in 2015 and what they would do if they were elected president to help rid the world of terrorism.


2) Clinton Hit Hard on Iraq War Vote

In the previous Democratic debate, candidates were generally in agreement on most of the issues discussed and — for the most part — refrained from directly attacking their opponents. Saturday’s debate took a bit of a different trajectory, and it started with an attack that Clinton knows all too well.

As mentioned earlier, the first part of the debate focused on foreign policy. When the debate turned to discussing instability in the Middle East, the conversation inevitably touched on the War in Iraq and both Sanders and O’Malley took shots at Clinton for voting in favor of the war during her time in the Senate.

Clinton’s vote, which she has since called a mistake, hampered her in her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination and has come up many times in this election cycle as well. Sanders, who believes the war was one of the biggest foreign policy mistakes in U.S. history, said that the instability in the Middle East today is directly related to the invasion of Iraq. O’Malley also said Clinton’s decision to vote in favor of military intervention was a “big mistake.”

“I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now.”

-Sen. Bernie Sanders

Given Clinton’s commanding lead in the polls, it’s unlikely that renewed attacks on her infamous vote in favor of the Iraq War Resolution will have much of an impact on her campaign. That being said, there’s no doubt that the decision continues to haunt Clinton even 13 years after the fact, and it’s likely a criticism that both Sanders and O’Malley will continue to level against her as the race goes on.


3) Candidates Go On the Attack

Foreign policy was not the only issue the three candidates disagreed on in last night’s debate. Indeed, unlike the first Democratic contest, all three candidates went on the offensive on several issues.

Candidates exchanged barbs on gun control, Wall Street, the minimum wage, campaign financing and more, with all three candidates landing blows on their opponents. Of course, the main recipient of attacks was Clinton, who is well ahead of both candidates in national polling.

While there was still general agreement on most of the topics discussed, the increased number of attacks in Saturday’s debate might signal a change in the campaign.

As the Iowa caucuses get closer and Clinton continues to solidify her lead, both Sanders and O’Malley are showing a willingness to go after the former secretary of state. And, as she showed in the debate, Clinton is not afraid to punch back:


4) Martin O’Malley Plays Larger Role

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley entered last night’s debate polling at under 3 percent, according to polling averages on Real Clear Politics. The Governor was unable to break through in the first debate and his campaign was in desperate need of a good performance in Saturday’s contest. Fortunately for O’Malley, he had one of his best performances of the race.

While far from perfect, O’Malley was very solid in Saturday night’s debate. He launched steady and forceful attacks at Clinton and managed to insert himself into the conversation all night long.

O’Malley once again touted his accomplishments and executive experience, arguing that he had actually executed the goals that other candidates can only talk about. He received constant and hearty applause from the crowd all night long and even earned a personal insult from Donald Trump — an accomplishment for any Democratic candidate.

Of course, things still aren’t looking great for the Governor and it’ll take more than a good debate to catch Clinton and Sanders. But O’Malley’s campaign needed him to put on a strong performance, and that’s exactly what he did last night.


5) Does Bernie Sanders Want to Win?

For the second debate in a row, Bernie Sanders was offered an opportunity to attack Hillary Clinton on her use of a personal email server during her time as Secretary of State. For the second debate in a row, he refused to take it.

In the last debate, Sanders famously declared that he was “sick and tired of hearing about [Clinton’s] damn emails.” Saturday night, the Des Moines Register’s Kathie Obradovich gave Sanders a chance to clarify what he said and take advantage of  Clinton’s biggest vulnerability. Instead, he said this:

“That’s just media stuff,” Sanders answered. “I was sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail. I am still sick and tired of Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.”

In one of the biggest surprises of the primary season, Sanders has all but singlehandedly pushed the email controversy out of the political conversation, at least as far as the Democratic nomination is concerned. Sanders’ proclamation in the first debate (and his reaffirmation of it last night) shifted the campaign back to the issues, which is what he wanted. But it also gave Clinton a virtual free pass on arguably the biggest obstacle facing her on her path to the nomination.

Yes, Sanders’ decision not to attack Clinton on the email controversy has helped the candidates debate the issues that people want to hear about. But given the fact that Clinton’s campaign was struggling mightily before Sanders essentially pardoned her on emails and has since rebounded, it makes you wonder if he really wants to win.

The next Democratic debate will be Dec. 19 in New Hampshire.