Who Won the Dem Debate? Skeptics Chip In

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discuss an issue at the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee on February 11, 2016. After watching the debate, scholars weigh in on who they think won this round. Jim Young/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On Tuesday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won the Democratic New Hampshire primary by a whopping 22 percent of the vote over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

This victory reinforces Sanders's candidacy after a narrow loss to Clinton in Iowa, and comes in spite of Clinton's own 3 percentage point New Hampshire win eight years ago, and President Bill Clinton's "Comeback Kid" status in the Granite State.

On Thursday night, the two met again at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, for a PBS debate moderated by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. With South Carolina and Nevada primaries upcoming, both candidates were anticipated to keep their eyes on those voters.

As PBS wrote in the lead-up to Thursday, "The Clinton dynasty is at stake and this is her second drive to become president. For Sanders, the battle against Clinton is a showdown with the establishment...."

American Enterprise Institute scholars weighed in:

Michael Barone

The hottest moment of the PBS-Facebook Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee came at the end, when Hillary Clinton attacked Bernie Sanders for calling Barack Obama weak and a disappointment and urging that someone run against him in the primaries in 2012.

Sanders replied heatedly that that was a "low blow," that he valued the president very much but reserved the right to disagree—and that only one of them had run against Obama in 2008.

I think the exchange needs to be seen in the context of the upcoming South Carolina primary, a contest in which, in 2008, 55 percent of Democratic voters were black.

Clinton throughout made a point of praising Obama, clinging as it were to his coattails. She believes (rightly, I think) that most black voters believe Obama has been both an excellent president and one who is disrespected by very many non-black Americans.

Past history and current polling both suggest Clinton will get upwards of 88 percent of blacks' primary votes, but given Sanders's demonstrated appeal to young voters, she evidently feels she can't be sure.

She also made a shout-out to another group, white working class voters, especially in coal country. She carried the coal and Appalachian states running west to Arkansas and Oklahoma by huge margins in 2008 primaries—they were her very best states—but her weak performance among "beer Democrats" in Iowa and New Hampshire must be making her nervous that she can repeat that performance.

There was a tension, however, between Clinton's repeated praise of Obama and both candidates' depictions of American life today. Clinton suggested that race relations were better than in 2008, although moderator Judy Woodruff said "almost everyone" believes that's not true.

Both denounced the campaign finance system, though this campaign has made clearer than ever that money doesn't automatically buy votes (ask Jeb Bush) and that lack of big contributors doesn't prevent a successful campaign (ask Bernie Sanders).

More broadly, they depicted a country with a sagging economy, lack of opportunities for young people and what Sanders would call "yyyyuuge" barriers to blacks, women and LGBT people.

I thought Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill asked good questions, if not the questions Republican partisans might like, starting with Woodruff's good question to Sanders about how much he would expand government and up to what limit—a question I think Democrats never give a moment's thought to.

It underlines the absurdity of Bernie Sanders's promises of free health care, free college and free Ben & Jerry's ice cream. (I'm kidding about the last one: You have to pay for his Vermont friends' product.) But give him credit for setting the agenda. He's got Clinton singing a lot of his tune; in her closing, she whacked Wall Street, the pharmaceutical companies and oil companies.

One final thought. Both Clinton and Sanders endorsed "fundamental policing reform." Some of their ideas have gotten bipartisan agreement: A good case can be made for reducing mandatory minimum sentences, for example, and for providing better preparation for convicts re-entering the community.

But their premise that there is something like a crisis in police shooting unarmed blacks is unsubstantiated by the facts. The alarming rise in homicides in major cities since the demonstrations over Ferguson suggests that campaigning against "overpolicing" is politically risky. I have noticed that Republican presidential candidates in campaign events get standing applause when they call for thanks to law enforcement officials.

The policies Sanders and Clinton endorse could come uncomfortably close to the policies which made Detroit what it is today. Clinton is campaigning hard to maintain her seeming strength with black voters and Sanders is campaigning to weaken it. But there may be a risk here for their party in the general election more than they appreciate.

Karlyn Bowman

Last night's debate was very spirited and sharp. Both candidates played to type. Hillary the policy wonk and Bernie Sanders, he who is full of passion. They didn't break much new ground with the possible exception of their disagreements about Henry Kissinger.

Did this debate change any minds? I doubt it.

Timothy P. Carney

Thursday's debate highlighted differences in policy, political philosophy, governing style and demeanor. It also highlighted very different tactics and skill levels in campaigning.

Hillary Clinton is typically well prepared for specific questions hooked on news developments (this week's, for instance, were the questions on Syria and the supposed special place in hell for women who back Bernie). This reflects her attention to detail, robust campaign speech and meticulous crafting of message according to polls and focus groups.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, mostly repeated the lines he says in his stump speech. He spoke of his $27 average donation, prison sentences for marijuana possession but not fraudulent bankers, unemployment among black youth and a dozen other lines he delivers at every stop. If someone wanted to make a BernieBot mashup video on Facebook to match the MarcoBot ones, it would be easy.

Their tactical differences boil down to this: meticulous and constant focus-grouping vs. proven standards. This campaign will be a test of these styles.

Kevin Corinth

Throughout the debate, the candidates seemed to approach the issues with different underlying values. Secretary Clinton often talked about helping people reach their full potential by removing barriers for marginalized groups. Senator Sanders was laser-focused on taxing Wall Street to pay for things for the middle class. When he talked about our duty to the most vulnerable, he talked about how many billionaires we have.

When it comes to issues like poverty alleviation, values matter. It would be interesting to hear more about how the candidates' values shape their policy views in assisting poor Americans.

Frederick Hess

Watching the Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders felt like listening to two drunken French lit majors talk social policy. They agreed that America is a feudal society driven by institutional racism and corporate greed, but also that new taxes and federal programs can get things fixed up in a hurry.

They agreed that Obama has been a noble and far-sighted president, though apparently not enough of either to actually address any of these problems. They discussed America as a serialized collection of aggrieved groups, even managing to get whites in the litany (with Clinton promising that Washington would fix West Virginia for those coal-mining types).

My own personal bailiwick, education, came up repeatedly, but primarily as a vehicle for talking about the free stuff Washington will do in order to combat feudalism and institutional racism.

Sanders talked about making college free, while Clinton quibbled about the particulars. They called for better education and for replicating successful programs, as if these were novel solutions.

Sanders studiously avoided saying how big he thinks the federal government should be. Clinton took a poke at Sanders for this.

Neither offered any thoughts as to what Washington ought not attempt in education or what it is ill-equipped to do well. When asked, both called for government "efficiency" but neither could mention a single specific federal program they'd discontinue. All in all, a remarkably unimpressive showing.

Kevin James

Sanders and Clinton had a brief skirmish over higher education early in the debate, but little was said on the topic after that.

Sanders reiterated one of his main talking points in favor of free public college, that given the increased importance of education after high school in the modern economy, a four-year college degree should be free and as universally available as a high-school degree is today.

Rather than making her typical counterpoint that we shouldn't be paying to "send Donald Trump's kids to college," however, Clinton took another approach, arguing that the federal government can't ensure that states, particularly those led by Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, will actually put forward their share of the costs of free college. As a result, free college might not be equally available to everyone, as Senator Sanders proposes.

While it's an important point, I'm not sure that many free college proponents will be swayed by this argument, as many might feel that at least with a federal framework in place encouraging free college, most states would come along eventually. I think the more powerful argument against free college is this one: Access to high-quality postsecondary education is essential for success in today's economy and should be at the top of policymakers' agenda.

However, free college is not actually the best route toward that end, both because it can have the effect of limiting access (as my AEI colleague Andrew Kelly argues here) and would likely diminish, rather than improve, the quality of education students are receiving (as I argue here).

Matt A. Mayer

On immigration, both Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton believe that not only are President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration proper, but that even stronger executive action should be taken.

This uber-executive mentality violates the separation of powers and illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the Constitution. As any high school student knows, Congress is the branch that makes the laws and the president represents the branch that executes those laws.

Sanders and Clinton know better. They believe an uncooperative Congress isn't an impediment elected by the people due respect, but is merely an obstacle to drive around.

When it comes to national security, Sanders had little to say other than left-wing pablum. Clinton rightly noted America needed to do a better job coordinating activities among federal, state, and local law enforcement in order to improve our intelligence on ISIS's terrorist intent.

She then telegraphed a major attack point she will use in the general election should Donald Trump be the Republican nominee. Specifically, in highlighting the "see something, say something" program, Secretary Clinton noted American Muslims must feel welcome and that Trump's rhetoric does little other than stir animosity against them, which created dangerous sentiment here and abroad.

Thomas P. Miller

It was a higher performance debate in Milwaukee on Thursday night. Even the PBS moderators were good, asking tougher and carefully targeted questions on a number of occasions, even without all of the usual liberal bias (I'm not sure whether that's a left-handed or right-handed compliment!)

Clinton maintained a much more positive and (controlled) pleasant expression throughout the debate—before delivering a few haymakers at the very end. She was the can-do woman, in an "It's Complicated" world, presented herself as furthering Obama's third term, and made clear that she believes she has a plan...for everything.

Her appeal within the Democratic primary is to every voting group that believes it has suffered from discrimination. It's...everywhere , but particularly for key voting blocs—minorities, women, the LGBT community. And let's not leave out organized labor, because all those teachers union members, hospitality workers and other trained campaign workers are going to be needed in the general election.

One question that wasn't asked of Hillary: Just what can and will you do better than President Obama did not. And where will you succeed where he fell short?

On health policy, Clinton pushed out a price tag for her next stage extension of ObamaCare: a mere $100 billion a year extra on top of the current bill. It was mildly amusing to hear her also professing that the important issues were not about money but making promises that will be kept (in other words, let's forget HillaryCare and her secret and unaccountable task force production).

While Clinton channeled her best Tracy Flick, Sanders continued speaking to the larger hopes of the party's progressive base. He also tried at outreach to African-American voters via discussion of the criminal justice system's flaws. It's unusual how little the two candidates refer to the concerns of Hispanic voters (particularly beyond the generic immigration issue), though Sanders tried to work them in.

Bernie clearly sees the next round of immigration policy as calling for unilateral executive action whereas Hillary was more wedded to the slower-moving legislative game.

Sanders nevertheless exposed several weaknesses. His call for treating higher education as an extension of the free public education system would ensure race-to-the-bottom results. His universal health care lectures suggest that he's actually running to head up the European Union; becoming president of Sweden isn't ambitious enough.

Bernie's comments on guarding against the "unintended consequences" of foreign policy decisions left unasked: Have you ever stumbled over an unintended consequence of the sweeping domestic policy positions that you have supported?

Sanders also left some ammo on the table, which makes you wonder just how aggressive a revolution against the Democratic establishment he is willing to risk. After lambasting the evils of big money in campaign finance and financial regulation, he never takes the next step to challenge the record of the Clinton administration (and the post-Clinton foundation buck raking).

Similarly, he refrained from hanging around her neck Hillary's pragmatic stance to build upon the private health insurance system (at least when before progressive audiences). And Bernie's debate managers might want to think about insisting on availability and use of a cough button at the lectern.

Here are some of the more interesting answers that both candidates should have provided to debate questions:

When asked which government programs they would eliminate, both Sanders and Clinton should have vowed to keep looking relentlessly for the single guilty program, just like O.J. Simpson's never ending search for the killer of Nicole and Ron.

Regarding the past leaders they most admired and would like to emulate, Bernie should have chosen Norman Thomas rather than FDR, because Thomas supplied the latter's policy platform (just like Bernie is doing for Hillary?).

It was surprising that Hillary didn't go with Eleanor rather than Franklin. Maybe she just doesn't hear her voice from the Great Beyond as loudly anymore.... She also could have done a shout out to Beyoncé instead, because she'll need those voters in South Carolina.

Norman J. Ornstein

It was Hillary Clinton's best debate. She was measured, in command on the issues, and was able to show Sanders vulnerability on his sweeping, vague plans on health and education. She also managed to turn the contest into a referendum on Obama, which should help her with the Democrats who love him, which includes especially African-Americans.

Not surprisingly, she showed her depth on foreign policy, a real weakness of his. Not that Sanders flopped, or lost any support from his debate performance. But given the dynamic of the past week, and the press narrative of Clinton on the ropes, this debate will help her.

Danielle Pletka

Apparently the GOP and the Democrats are running for president in two different countries. One is a miserable cesspool of racism, inequality, prison and misery with a few foreign policy problems that could be solved by chatting up our enemies, and the other is a country in the midst of the worst national security environment since the Cold War.

Give it to the Republicans, at least they seem to live in a world that extends beyond interest groups and grievances.... Because as was evident at last night's Democratic debate, foreign policy is just no big deal. Bernie Sanders spent more time talking about the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger and 1950s Iran than he did about terrorism, Iran, Russia or China.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton took a tough line—tougher than when she was secretary of state—on the challenges we face in the Middle East and Iran. But neither seemed especially interested in talking national security...trade, global growth, the economy, defense, troubles in Europe and pretty much everything else got less airtime than Sanders's annoying coughing.

Part of the blame goes to the moderators for not asking much on foreign policy. But then again, when offered a moment in their intros and conclusions, neither Sanders nor Clinton mentioned national security.

Luckily, the world's in a good place, Al-Qaeda and ISIS are on their heels, the war in Iraq is ended and Syria...well, whatever.

Angela Rachidi

At times it's hard to believe that Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders are running in the same primary given their stark differences in many areas. Secretary Clinton tries to blur their differences, but the question in the debate about the role of government drew severe contrasts between the two. Senator Sanders was unapologetic about his desire to significantly expand the size of the federal government, while Clinton was more cautious.

This initial exchange highlighted a major problem for the Democrats, which became clearer throughout the debate. It's hard to see Senator Sanders transitioning into a general election candidate. And even though stark differences remain between the two, Secretary Clinton may also be hurting herself in the general election by moving too close to Sanders. A path for a third party candidate like Mayor Bloomberg might just be opening up.

Weifeng Zhong

To me, it didn't seem a particularly encouraging debate for the Clinton campaign. Compared to previous ones, the debate last night covered more social issues, where Clinton's positions don't differ from Sanders's that much.

By my count, Clinton used the "race words"—"racism," "African-American," etc.—nine times last night, while Sanders did 26 times in response. Back in New Hampshire, just a week ago, Clinton played the "race card" only three times and Sanders only four.

The "gender card"—using words like "women" and "sexism"—was played by Clinton 18 times last night, to which Sanders did seven times in response. In New Hampshire, it was only five times by Clinton, and only once by Sanders.

Sanders didn't win New Hampshire on those social issues. What the Clinton campaign desperately needs to confront is the fundamental fact that Sanders is an openly socialist candidate running on a platform history has shown to be a failure. Moving away from this critical issue should be a disappointment not only for the Clinton campaign but also for the Democratic party and for America.

Michael Auslin

Just a month after another nuclear test and days after North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile, and only weeks after the Obama administration again sent a U.S. naval vessel into Chinese-claimed waters, neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders mentioned security risks in Asia. In fact, more interested in prosecuting or defending 92-year old Henry Kissinger's record from the 1970s, neither Democratic candidate even mentioned Asia.

Not only Asian security was ignored. The fact that China's economy is dramatically slowing down, possibly even stagnating, causing negative ripple effects throughout the world, rated no comment. Risk in Asia, whether economic, security or political, is growing, and the next president will need a sophisticated understanding of the dangers and a plan to deal with them.

As it stands, one would not be surprised to see either a President Sanders or a President Clinton taken by surprise by a crisis in Asia, and forced to fumble for a response. The American public has no idea the level of knowledge either Democratic candidate possesses about half the world, nor their ideas for dealing with the region.

Michael Barone, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

Karlyn Bowman is senior fellow and research coordinator at AEI.

Timothy P. Carney is visiting fellow, culture of competition project, at the American Enterprise Institute.

Kevin Corinth is a research fellow in economic policy studies at AEI.

Frederick Hess is Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies at AEI.

Kevin J. James is a research fellow with the Center on Higher Education Reform at AEI.

Matt A. Mayer is visiting fellow, homeland security 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.

Danielle Pletka is senior vice president, foreign and defense policy studies at AEI.

Angela Rachidi is research fellow, poverty studies at AEI.

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