Democrats Debate In The Shadow Of The Paris Attacks, And Iowa Football

A Saturday night debate wasn't likely to get much attention to begin with. A Saturday night debate in the wake of a major terrorist attack, and a major football game for Iowa's premier college football team, likely got even less attention. That's probably good news for Hillary Clinton, and bad news for her two remaining rivals.

Second Democratic Debate

The fact that last night’s Democratic debate in Iowa was scheduled for a Saturday evening to begin with likely guaranteed, intentionally some have suggested, that it would get less attention from the national media and from voters than it otherwise might have. This would seem to be especially true in Iowa itself, where the debate started at the same time that the undefeated Iowa Hawkeyes were taking on Big Ten rival Minnesota in a prime time football game that was going to get high ratings in the Hawkeye State in any case, and likely got more attention as the state’s premier team tried to roll forward toward an anticipated appearance in the Big Ten Championship Game in December. Whatever the reasons for the scheduling, and it will be interesting to see what impact that has on the ratings nationally and in Iowa specifically, the debate was originally intended to focus on domestic issues and the economy, much like the most recent Republican debate.  The fact that the debate was occurring just twenty-four hours after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, though, meant that things were inevitably going to change. In the hours before the debate, it was being widely reported that CBS was informing the campaigns that Face The Nation host John Dickerson, who moderated the debate, would also be asking questions about foreign policy in the light of the Paris attacks, news that also brought reports of objections from the campaign of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders regarding changing to debate format. Obviously, more of a focus on foreign rather than domestic policy would undercut some of the strongest areas for Sanders while aiding Clinton, a former Secretary of State and Senator who had spent much time focusing on foreign policy during her time in the Senate.

In the end, the debate covered both foreign policy issues and the economic issues that were supposed to be its original focus, but it doesn’t appear that either Sanders or Martin O’Malley scored any major points, while Clinton continued her pattern from the first Democratic debate in a sufficiently good manner that her upward trajectory in the race is unlikely to be stopped:

Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had set out to use the second Democratic presidential debate to portray herself as the strongest potential commander in chief while France reeled from terror attacks, instead found herself pummeled by rivals on Saturday over her ties to Wall Street and her foreign policy record.

The debate in Des Moines opened with Mrs. Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Martin O’Malley bowing their heads to observe a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the attacks in Paris on Friday. And, at least at first, the three remaining Democratic candidates seemed acutely aware that traditional political punches could seem petty in the aftermath of the bloodshed.

But then Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley unleashed pointed, yet polite, critiques of Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy stances, including her 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq, which Mr. Sanders tied to the rise of the Islamic State, which officials in Paris have said was responsible for the attacks.

“Let me have one area of disagreement with the secretary,” Mr. Sanders said gingerly, as if on eggshells to lob an attack at a somber moment. “I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq — something that I strongly opposed — has unraveled the region completely and led to the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS.”

Mr. O’Malley, meanwhile, painted a dark portrait of Middle East policy under the Obama administration, in which Mrs. Clinton spent four years as secretary of state. “Libya is a mess. Syria is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Afghanistan is a mess,” he said.

Without directly calling her opponents naïve, Mrs. Clinton responded by listing decades of granular foreign policy developments that she said contributed to the current crisis. “If we’re ever going to really tackle the problems posed by jihadi extreme terrorism, we need to understand it and realize that it has antecedents to what happened in Iraq,” she said.

But she grew increasingly defensive as the evening progressed and the topics drifted to domestic issues. Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley both criticized her ties to the financial industry and argued that her policies would not go far enough to rein in the Wall Street excesses that led to the 2008 financial crisis.

“Let’s not be naïve about it,” an increasingly animated Mr. Sanders said. “Why over her political career has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Now maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

Mrs. Clinton called the implication an attack on her character and won applause by noting that the majority of her donors were women who made small-dollar donations. “He has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity, let’s be frank here,” she said, winning applause.


The attacks on Mrs. Clinton were notably harsher than in the first Democratic debate last month, an illustration of the growing pressure her two rivals feel to differentiate themselves as she tightens her hold on the Democratic race.

Mr. Sanders tried repeatedly to return the conversation to income inequality, an area where he has galvanized voters with his populist message. He drew brief laughter when he said he was not sure yet exactly how much he would increase taxes on the rich, but he promised not to raise rates as high as the 90 percent level that existed during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, focused her opening statement on national security. “All the other issues we want to deal with depend on us being secure and strong,” she said.


Asked if he had any disagreements with her record as secretary of state, Mr. Sanders said, “I am not a great fan of regime change.”

Mr. O’Malley, who stood out in Saturday’s debate with only three candidates competing for airtime, also assailed Mrs. Clinton’s push to intervene in Libya. “We need to be much more far-thinking in this new 21st-century era of nation-state failures and conflict,” he said. “It’s not just about getting rid of a single dictator.”

Mrs. Clinton defended her decision to back the ouster of Colonel Qaddafi, who, she said, “probably had more blood on his hands of Americans than anybody.”

When the discussion shifted to gun control, Mr. Sanders became the subject of attacks and he appeared better equipped to defend himself on the issue than he had in the first debate.

After Mrs. Clinton suggested last month that he was using sexist language in the first Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Oct. 13, when he said that “shouting” would not resolve the issue, Mr. Sanders slyly calibrated his language.


In calling out Mr. Sanders for what she said are impractical proposals, Mrs. Clinton reiterated the sentiment, if not the exact phrasing, of a refrain that resonated in the first debate: “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done,” she said then.

Mrs. Clinton mocked his proposal to offer free college tuition for all, saying: “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college,” and suggested that his health care plan would hand over too much power to states.

Mr. O’Malley sought to portray Mrs. Clinton as a flip-flopper on gun control. “Secretary Clinton, you’ve been on three sides of this,” he said. “When you ran in 2000, you said that we needed federal robust regulations. Then, in 2008, you were portraying yourself as Annie Oakley and saying that we don’t need those regulations on the federal level. And now you come back around here.”

Mrs. Clinton tried to brush off attacks. “You’ve heard a lot about me in this debate,” she said in closing, “and I’m going to keep talking and thinking about all of you.”

Here’s a bit of how The Des Moines Register covered last night’s events:

The Democratic debate’s somber opening focus on how to deal with terrorism in the aftermath of the atrocities in Paris devolved into heated back-and-forth attacks, as rivals Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley directed their fire at front-runner Hillary Clinton on Saturday night in Iowa.

But Clinton, who leaned heavily on her international credibility as the nation’s former top foreign affairs official to prove she can do the top job, emerged mostly unscathed, despite one stumble in which she justified big campaign donations from Wall Street by saying she had helped that area of Manhattan recover from the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, politics watchers said.

“Clinton effectively won by withstanding attacks,” undecided voter Steve Warnstadt, a former state senator from Sioux City, told The Des Moines Register after the nearly two-hour showdown at Drake University’s campus in Des Moines.

Sanders, a Vermont U.S. senator, ignited his base with several passionate applause lines, but may have also reinforced doubt about him, Iowa Democrats said. He refused to say it was a mistake to vote to give gun manufacturers immunity from lawsuits. And he noticeably rejected the premise of a question about working with Republicans by saying his political revolution would push aside anyone in its path.

“It was an unrealistic answer that made him seem unrealistic,” said Iowa City Democratic activist John Deeth, who writes a blog on Iowa politics. “However, when he was in his comfort zone of economic issues, he was in perfect pitch tune with the Democratic base.”

The strategic winner of the night was O’Malley, who delivered quips and catchy lines, including slamming GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump as an “immigrant-bashing carnival barker.”

And one of the most powerful lines of the debate, Iowa Democrats said, was when O’Malley said a mother of a service member he met in Burlington, Iowa, asked him not to use the term “boots on the ground” when referring to soldiers overseas.

“My son is not a pair of boots on the ground. These are American soldiers,” O’Malley said the woman told him.

“For the first time, he really established himself as a plausible alternative to Sanders for near-left Democrats not comfortable with Clinton,” Deeth said. “Still very much an uphill fight, but he looked credible.”\


For most of the two hours, Clinton’s rivals took turns ganging up on her, trying to make a dent in her double-digit lead in state and national polls.

Sanders, who has seen his heady summertime momentum blunted, needled Clinton on her vote for the Iraq War when she was a New York U.S. senator.

“I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely. And led to the rise of Al Qaida and to ISIS,” Sanders said. “These invasions, these toppling of governments, regime changes, have unintended consequences. I would say that on this issue I’m a little bit more conservative than the secretary.”

O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, who is trailing in a very distant third place, took swings at Clinton on ISIS, on “the after-effects of the invasion of Iraq,” and other matters.

On gun control, O’Malley told Clinton, “when you ran in 2000, you said that we needed federal robust regulations. Then in 2008 you were portraying yourself as Annie Oakley and saying that we don’t need those regulations on the federal level.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake flagged that comment.

“Annie Oakley is kind of a sexist statement,” Lake told the Register.

Clinton pushed back at Sanders, saying she disagreed with him on how to provide health care to everyone, and free college for everyone, saying she doesn’t want to send Trump’s children to college for free.

Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa, concluded that Clinton’s campaign “is going to be tough to slow down.”

“Sanders and O’Malley didn’t land any serious blows,” he said.

The Washington Post and Politico also focus much of their coverage on both the foreign policy aspect of the debate and the fact that both Sanders and O’Malley both seemed to step up their efforts at score points against Clinton. Both reports also emphasize, however, that the blows seemed to be at best glancing blows that

The failure of either Sanders or O’Malley to land any serious blows against Clinton, and that Clinton doesn’t appear to have made any major mistakes during the course of the debate, likely means that neither candidate is going to benefit very much from last night’s debate no matter how well they may have that. In addition to that, though, it seems as though this debate is not going to get the same coverage that the Democratic National Committee may have anticipated when it set the schedule for a Saturday night. I’ve had CNN on for a full hour since I got up this morning, for example, and there has been literally no discussion about the debate, or even a mention that it took place. Instead, all the coverage has been about the Paris attacks and news reports that have been breaking this morning about the possible identities of the attackers. One imagines that the same is largely true of the other networks, although I haven’t checked, and that the majority of the time on the Sunday morning news programs will be taken up with Paris coverage, ISIS, and the President’s arrival in Turkey for a G-20 Summit that its likely to see its own agenda change significantly in the wake of Friday evening’s events in Paris. Given all of that, it strikes me that neither Sanders nor O’Malley are likely to get much attention for what they said last night, and that is likely to primarily benefit Clinton.

It’s not at all clear that there was anything that either Bernie Sanders or Martin O”Malley could have done to seriously impact the race for the Democratic nomination last night. As it was, Clinton’s very successful October was causing her campaign to move forward in much the way that analysts expected that it would prior to hitting the doldrums over the summer and it was quickly becoming a juggernaut long before the cameras began rolling last night. Even if Clinton had made a serious mistake last night that would have hurt her with Democratic voters, which doesn’t seem to have happened, neither of her rivals at this point are really well-positioned or well-known enough to capitalize on it in a significant way. Additionally, one gets the impression that both Sanders and O’Malley realize that any real points they do score against Clinton are more likely to cause her problems in the General Election, thus benefiting Republicans, than it is to put any serious dent in an effort to win the Democratic Presidential Nomination that now seems to be largely unstoppable. In the wake of the Paris attacks, which has understandably diverted the attention of the media and likely the attention of the American people as well, the likelihood of either man accomplishing anything last night was seemingly even further reduced. Perhaps there will be something that comes out of last night that will damage Clinton, but that doesn’t seem likely. Sanders and O’Malley will both stick around in the race, of course, and they’ll be back for the last Democratic debate of 2015. The fact that that debate is also scheduled for a Saturday night, and the last Saturday before Christmas at that, though, likely means that even fewer people will be paying attention and that Clinton really doesn’t have very much to worry about.

If you missed the debate, which I suspect many people did, you can watch it here.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Brian Stump says:

    I think the real gist of this story is “who cares”. Enough said.

  2. @Brian Stump:

    No, the gist is that the debate is not likely to change the race for the Democratic nation at all. This was probably predictable all along, and I’d suggest it isn’t a mistake that the DNC scheduled the thing for a Saturday night when viewership would likely be down.

  3. Tyrell says:

    It is obvious thst it was planned this way by the groups that are controlling the nomination processes and the election. Scripted, programmed, edited, controlled. Sanders just has no clue what he is really up against, and we are not talking about Hillary.

  4. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I take it from the course and tone of your comments that you didn’t watch the debate either, Doug?

  5. WR says:

    @Tyrell: “Scripted, programmed, edited, controlled. Sanders just has no clue what he is really up against, and we are not talking about Hillary.”

    So, wait — Sanders is scripted, but he doesn’t know what’s going on? Who does he think gave him the script, and why would he recite it?