Opinion

Who Won the Dem Debate? How Unbelievers Saw It

02_05_Dem_Debate
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, left, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discuss an issue during the Democratic presidential candidates debate sponsored by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, on February 4. American Enterprise Institute scholars broke down this debate to see who really won. Mike Segar/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On Thursday night, MSNBC hosted the second Democratic presidential primary debate of 2016 in Durham, New Hampshire.

Former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Clinton and current Senator Bernie Sanders came to the University of New Hampshire campus in advance of that state’s primary on Tuesday, February 9.

This marks the first weeknight prime-time debate for the Democrats since their first debate, on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, in Las Vegas. This also marks the first two-person debate of this election cycle.

Since Clinton won the caucuses in Iowa by less than a percentage point, a “virtual draw,” the stakes are constantly rising for both candidates. The voters in the “first in the nation” primary state differ from Iowa caucus-goers; with the results of Iowa seeming to cast doubt on traditional polls, it is unclear how New Hampshire’s Democratic and independent or undeclared voters will align themselves next week. (New Hampshire offers primary-day registration to undeclared voters, who account for up to 44 percent of voters in the state.)

American Enterprise Institute scholars broke down this first in the Democratic race.

Karlyn Bowman

A very tough debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire. I doubt there was a clear winner, as both scored points, and I doubt it changed the minds of many Hampshire voters. Bernie Sanders’s closing statement was personal and strong. The audience loved it. Based on last night’s discussions, voters will have a stark choice in November.

Timothy P. Carney

Bernie Sanders, once again, seemed unwilling to attack Hillary Clinton on her weakest points.

In a raucous and often edifying debate, the candidates at times highlighted the real differences between the pragmatic, corporate-friendly party establishment and the pitchfork-waving progressive base. But when asked about foreign policy, Sanders did not attack Hillary where she was weakest: her central role in crafting the Libyan war, which has helped the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

When asked about moving her emails to a private server—seemingly an effort to shield her communications from public-records laws, while making them more vulnerable to foreign hackers—he demurred.

In discussions of Wall Street money and policy, Sanders never drove in the spear tip, highlighting Clinton’s flip-flop on the 2001 bankruptcy bill, her bailout support and her love of taxpayer guarantees for Wall Street loans to foreign companies and green-energy schemes.

At times, Sanders seems like more than a message candidate, but not in Thursday’s debate.

Mackenzie Eaglen

The U.S. military and American defense policy have simply not been priorities in any Democratic Party debate to date, and tonight was no exception. Even the brief discussions on foreign policy remained topical and focused on straw-man arguments.

The brevity is even more striking given the time available to the two candidates; the 10-candidate Republican debates have featured national security front and center. But the truth is that the next commander in chief is going to want the tools of American statecraft rebuilt, even if only to maintain the status quo after this latest drawdown.

Investment in the U.S. military is an insurance policy—it reduces risk of conflict and supports America’s soft power. Like an insurance policy, it requires constant investment. For too long, we have shirked our investment in the military, and you cannot buy insurance on the day of the big storm.

Reversing American retrenchment is not like flipping a light switch back on. Ignoring the requirement to build our military at debates or town halls isn’t going to make the job any easier, quicker or cheaper. Stable policies and oversight—along with steady and predictable investments—are the boring but proven paths to begin rebuilding.

The irony is that voters want to hear more from candidates running for the highest office in the land about their plans for rebuilding the military. National security, safety and protection are at the top of voters’ minds this presidential election cycle. Not addressing their insecurities only increases them.

Andrew P. Kelly

Hillary Clinton spent much of the early moments of the debate trying to out-progressive Bernie Sanders, but not on college affordability. In response to Sanders’s starry-eyed call to make four-year public college free, Clinton tried to stake out a more “responsible” position, saying, “I don’t believe in free college, because every expert that I have talked to says, look, how will you ever control the costs.” She went on to say her plan is designed to help middle-class families, “not Donald Trump’s kids.”

Clinton’s criticism of the Sanders plan is directionally sound—universal free tuition would be a windfall for families that can afford to pay tuition, and on taxpayers’ dime. But her plan is hardly an exemplar of fiscal responsibility. Two things are worth remembering.

First, her plan would still cost $350 billion in additional money over 10 years, not to mention the new spending it would require of the states. Second, one-third of the $350 billion would go toward lowering interest rates on new student loans and letting borrowers refinance their loans at lower interest rates.

It’s hard to overstate how poorly targeted these interest subsidies are. Lowering interest rates reduces loan payments for everyone, including those who can afford their payments now. And they provide the biggest reward to those with the biggest debts—those who went to graduate school and earned lucrative professional degrees.

Clinton may say she doesn’t want to give higher-income students free tuition, but she seems perfectly happy to use interest subsidies to subsidize those students in a less visible—but extremely costly—way.

Phillip Lohaus

At first it seemed as though foreign policy would again receive short shrift, and on the whole it did. But once they did touch on the subject, Hillary extended her approach du jour—talking about how she would continue Obama’s “successes”—to foreign policy, and Bernie followed along, albeit from a less informed place.

Bernie showed that he probably wouldn’t be comfortable at all being a wartime president, and it wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that he came off as completely in over his head on national security issues.

As for Hillary, it’s still hard to know what kind of commander in chief she would be. Though one would hope that her experience would have taught her the importance of toughness, of pragmatism and of a principled approach to foreign policy, she parroted Obama’s semantic hair-splitting regarding which “boots” constitute “boots on the ground” (not those of special operations forces, apparently), and she apparently now shares his naive position that we can defeat and destroy ISIS with airstrikes and advisers alone.

As for her email problems, she continues to characterize them as a “political” issue, but back on planet earth, the reality is that the case against her is building and getting more serious by the day. Riding on Obama’s coattails may win votes among Democrats, but it won’t make an indictment disappear.

Aparna Mathur

The first hour—which was focused on economic issues—hardly moved beyond Hillary Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street firms and the role of big money in politics. At the beginning, Bernie Sanders brought up free college. Given the high youth unemployment rate, I would prefer the alternative policy of promoting paid apprenticeships to ensure that young workers receive training, get paid and graduate with a degree, skills and a job.

Bernie Sanders also talked about going after U.S. companies that are parking money overseas and not paying their “fair share in taxes.” The problem with this simplistic accusation is that it doesn’t take into account how noncompetitive U.S. corporate tax rates are relative to the rest of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) economies, and the fact that the U.S. is the only developed country that taxes multinationals on a worldwide system. Unless we reform this system, this parking of money overseas is likely to continue, as are tax inversions.

Finally, Hillary Clinton did bring up paid leave, and I wish that discussion had gone deeper, but the debate was too focused on Wall Street and not enough on Main Street issues.

Michael Mazza

Four weeks ago, North Korea conducted a nuclear weapon test, possibly of a “boosted” fission weapon. In the coming weeks, it will carry out a satellite launch, a thinly disguised test of ICBM technology.

When Chuck Todd asked the candidates about the threat from Pyongyang, both claimed to take it seriously, but both made plain they hadn’t given the issue any serious thought.

Sanders argued that the United States should pressure China to solve the problem, an extant strategy that can best be described as a total failure. Clinton contended that the United States needs to work with other countries in the region to “restrain” North Korea. Who? How? To what end? Who knows?

Neither, apparently, considered that a novel approach might be warranted given the failed policies of three successive presidents. Neither bothered mentioning U.S. ally South Korea or the 28,000 American troops stationed there. Neither seemed interested in investing in missile defenses or other capabilities to mitigate a growing threat to the homeland. Neither even bothered committing to a goal of denuclearization.

Neither, it’s clear, is ready to tackle “the land of lousy options.”

Thomas P. Miller

Thursday night’s one-on-one debate in New Hampshire between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders opened up with early signs of PTSD (progressive traumatic stress disorder) on health policy issues. Clinton had to adopt the role of traffic cop (no speeding on this dangerous political highway) in defending what Obamacare already achieved and cautioning that the next moves ahead must be cautious and incremental.

It may not have been completely defensive and reactionary, but it provided a stark contrast to Bernie Sanders’s singing to the inner and outer socialist hearts of many single-payer fans in the Democratic base. Given the audience, and the MSNBC debate moderators (although Chuck Todd usually can do better in other settings), it’s not surprising that several other follow-up probes were not attempted.

Probes such as “Secretary Clinton, if you are the candidate who gets things done, how do you explain your failure to get Clintoncare into law in the 1990s and President Obama’s success in getting his plan through the political process?” “Did you learn anything from that?”

Or “Secretary Clinton, don’t you really want to get to the same place that Senator Sanders wants to go, but you just can’t figure out how to do it? Or risk arguing for it full-strength before getting elected?”

After the opening flurry over whether we will get to single-payer full-strength, or on the installment plan, the debate moved over to more of Clinton’s comparative strengths on foreign policy experience (if not demonstrated success). And I appreciated the brief nap time.

A few style points along the way. Clinton worked hard to smile more and be less shrill, and stifle her inner school principal/prison matron. (“Must control fist” should have popped up periodically as a cartoon caption above her head.) She usually succeeded at this.

Sanders injected noticeably several bows toward African-American voters (looking beyond New Hampshire, toward future primary weaknesses) in comments about the death penalty and a couple of other issues.

The Clinton-esque laundry list of government interventions everywhere came out at the very end of the debate (so much to do, so little of everyone else’s money to conscript and so little time for her one-way dialogue/lecture…).

One of the great howlers was Clinton’s expression of deep concern for the plight of small business. So different from Hillary circa 1993. Remember this golden oldie: “I can’t be responsible for every undercapitalized small business in America.”

No one has asked recently whether that reflected her lack of power, or lack of interest, at the time.

Norman Ornstein

The value of a one-on-one debate—compared with having six or seven or more candidates on the stage, or even three, where the third is an appendage—was clear in this debate. There were chances for real back-and-forth interchange, and opportunities to compare and contrast positions and strategies.

To my mind, the best moment was the responses on the death penalty, both thoughtful and nuanced. Hillary’s best moment was the one-word answer: no. It is so rarely done by candidates. The worst moments were gotcha questions about process and alleged scandals that seem obligatory for debate moderators.

Meanwhile, critical issues like climate change, racial tensions, criminal justice reform, tax reform and abortion were not raised.

The first half hour was intense, and the moderators had the good sense to leave time for the candidates. That ought to be a model. There was a very good and interesting exchange on what it means to be a progressive, and how to define one.

But it might be overshadowed by Clinton’s angry claim that Sanders has smeared her. Sanders continues to have difficulty grappling with the question of how he could actually implement any portion of his program in a deeply divided political system.

I don’t see a clear winner or loser in this debate, in terms of changing large numbers of minds in New Hampshire, but it suggests that the string of future debates will work more to the benefit of the eventual Democratic nominee, especially if the Republicans continue to have a larger number of candidates going after one another and moving further to the right to accommodate the base.

Ramesh Ponnuru

Secretary Clinton started the debate strong, arguing that Senator Sanders had an unrealistically narrow definition of progressive and that she could actually make progress, as defined by progressives, happen. But she never got around to explaining how, since she would very likely be governing with a Republican House and probably with a Republican Senate as well.

And it was downhill from there, as she had to justify her Wall Street speaking fees, her private-server scandal and her risible claim not to be part of the Democratic establishment. She revived a bit during the discussion of foreign policy, where Sanders was clearly out of his element. But Sanders may be right in his implicit judgment that Democratic primary voters don’t care about that.

Angela Rachidi

The entire first hour was spent on two basic issues that make Secretary Clinton uncomfortable: her authenticity as a progressive and her acceptance of Wall Street money. Way too much time was spent on both topics.

Secretary Clinton handled it relatively well, given that she clearly wanted to be talking about anything else. Senator Sanders was consistent, spending a lot of time diagnosing the problem from his perspective (mainly that Secretary Clinton isn’t progressive enough and that “Wall Street” is evil).

But he was ultimately unconvincing given his inability to articulate any concrete plans. His appeal to certain factions of the electorate is understandable, but nothing he said changed the fact that his proposals are as unrealistic as his ability to get them done.

When the debate finally turned to foreign policy, Secretary Clinton’s experience and depth of knowledge came through. Senator Sanders was a little out of his depth, but he adeptly brought up her lack of judgment referring to the Iraq War, which forced her to describe examples of her good judgment. But one couldn’t help thinking about other areas, such as her email server and Benghazi, where her judgment has been questionable.

Finally, the overall substance of the debate was disappointing. Trivial issues got much more play than real substantive issues. In the end, voters didn’t learn much from either candidate on the issues. If voters were looking for a sense of who has the best plans, they were disappointed.

Gerard Robinson

Hillary Clinton won the debate. Her knowledge of foreign affairs and health care policy far exceeds that of Senator Bernie Sanders. He, by contrast, is better versed in anti–Wall Street preciosity. Neither Clinton nor Sanders, however, articulated a believable agenda for pre-K–20 learning.

Simply decorating education programs with a “free” ornament feeds into the false impression that the federal government is a rosy-cheeked gift giver and that our state and local budgets are evergreen trees.

Without straight talk about what it takes to invest in great schools for children and adults, we will fail to produce the appropriate number of graduates needed to fill foreign affairs, health care and Wall Street jobs 15 years from now. And without creatively empowering students and families to choose the best schooling options for their individual circumstances, we will fail to help an even wider group of Americans.

Dalibor Rohac

Hillary Clinton deserves credit for articulating very cogently—in fact, better than any other candidate of either party—the threat that the regime in the Kremlin poses to Europe and to America’s interests. Alas, she did not elaborate on the role played by the ill-advised reset of U.S.-Russian relations that she oversaw, nor on the gradual weakening of the transatlantic relationship over the past years.

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI. Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI. Timothy P. Carney is a visiting fellow at the Culture of Competition Project at AEI. Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI. Andrew P. Kelly is a resident scholar in education policy studies and the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at AEI. Phillip Lohaus is a research fellow at the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI. Aparna Mathur is a resident scholar in economic policy studies at AEI. Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at AEI. Thomas P. Miller is a resident fellow at AEI. Norman Ornstein served as co-director of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI’s Election Watch series. He also served as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ramesh Ponnuru is a visiting fellow at AEI, a senior editor for National Review and a columnist for Bloomberg View. Angela Rachidi is a research fellow in poverty studies at AEI and a former deputy commissioner for policy research and evaluation for the Department of Social Services in New York. Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow in education policy studies at AEI. Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at AEI.