First Democratic Debate 2015: Highlights and Analysis


We chatted about and analyzed the first Democratic presidential debate featuring Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee.

Hillary Clinton Turns Up Heat on Bernie Sanders in a Sharp Debate

Hillary Clinton Turns Up Heat on Bernie Sanders in a Sharp Debate

The Democratic presidential candidates debated and disagreed on subjects including gun control and health care.


There was a lot to parse on the discussion of climate change at the debate.

Martin O’Malley declared that he is the “only candidate who would move to a clean electric grid by 2050,” meaning an electricity system generated entirely by zero-carbon sources of power, such as wind and solar.

This is true, but he declared that he would achieve this by making it “his first order in office.”

Given that today less than 10 percent of the nation’s electricity comes from such sources, it would take a lot more than an executive order to spur such a transition — it would take an aggressive policy pushed through Congress, and would almost certainly require a carbon tax, economists say.

Bernie Sanders said as much — that a carbon tax is essential for aggressively lowering emissions in the United States. But he also correctly noted that it would most likely be impossible to enact such a tax without campaign finance reform because many of the donors funding the “super PACs” that back political campaigns oppose a carbon tax, which is essentially a tax on fossil fuel consumption.

Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to avoid the issue of what precisely she would do on climate change.

Environmental advocates have pushed her to support a carbon tax, but doing so could set her up for a super PAC-financed attack accusing her of supporting an energy tax.

Instead of laying out a plan, she repeated the anecdote of how she and President Obama burst in unexpectedly on the Chinese climate negotiators and forced them to strike a deal in 2009.

None of the men on stage raised the issue of Planned Parenthood before she did, which I was really stunned by, because it seemed like an obvious way to try to appeal to her base. So she turned that well, too. And I think it lets her get some steps further away from what was a very rough summer.

It is hard to say anything other than that Clinton had a very strong performance. She was not condescending to Sanders, which had been a real concern. He basically absolved her on the emails issue, criticizing the press and Republicans.

The question I have is whether this is the kind of election in which a lot of voters are going to care too much about the gaps.

Sanders showed his limits. As deep as his convictions are and as eloquent as he can be on his core issues–money in politics, inequality–he simply doesn’t have that same depth on questions about foreign policy or even, surprisingly, family leave.

And lastly, I think O’Malley had a good night and got in the licks he wanted. But other than on style, he didn’t have a breakout moment. He positioned himself for decent reviews and to get a second look going forward.

On banks, Clinton was definitely sharper than she has been prior to this campaign, but I think it will still be an issue going forward. Sanders showed where the holes in his appeal are, but he also stayed true to himself.

Final Count of Candidate Speaking Time

Hillary Rodham Clinton had the most speaking time of the debate, with more than three times that of Lincoln Chafee, who had the least.

I think that’s right, Nick – I think she came off as something of a pragmatic progressive. She won the gun exchange with Sanders, turned the Iraq question well and did not lose her cool.

I think it would be hard for anyone to say, after this debate, that they are unclear what Clinton stands for and why she is running. No other candidate seemed as well-prepared tonight.

Her rhetoric on banks and on taxation was sharper, I think, than a lot of viewers will recall — or at any rate, sharper than her reputation in some quarters.

Clinton ends this debate, I think, as a much better-defined candidate: Unapologetically liberal on most domestic issues, hawkish (for her party) on foreign policy, and and clear on some major policy choices facing her party.

Clinton gets the last word and asks who on the stage has the record, tenacity and ability to foster change. “America has been knocked down,” Clinton says, referring to the recession. “We’re standing but not running the way America needs to.”

Sanders’s turn. Calls America great but says we need to work on healthcare, income inequality and family leave. Finishes on campaign finance saying, “We are doing it the old fashioned way.” And asks for donations.

O’Malley goes for the happy warrior pose, arguing that Democrats are all better than Republicans, who, he says, denigrate women and immigrants. “I truly believe that we are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress.”

In his closing statement, Webb says he is willing to take tough positions and find solutions. “I know how to lead,” he says, lamenting his financial disadvantage in the race.

Fact Check | Bernie Sanders Explains Opposing Immigration Bill

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.CreditJosh Haner/The New York Times

On the issue of immigration, Bernie Sanders has been forced to explain some history — namely, why he opposed the attempt at immigration reform in 2007.

At the debate, Mr. Sanders said he rejected President George W. Bush’s immigration overhaul that year because of its provisions regarding guest workers. He explained that guest workers are “working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they’re thrown out of the country.”

Mr. Sanders has long voiced concerns about guest-worker programs, and he made no secret about his opposition to the immigration effort in 2007. The A.F.L.-C.I.O., for instance, praised him for his stance.

“If poverty is increasing, and if wages are going down,” Mr. Sanders said that year, “I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are right now.”

Closing statements. Chafee lists all of America’s challenges, goes back to his mayoral and senate experience. “I have had no scandals,” he says in conclusion, before touting his Iraq vote again. Kind of a rambling end for Chafee.

Attacking Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley Cites a Need for ‘New Leadership’

If Democratic voters are looking for someone who is not part of the same establishment that has been part of gridlock in Washington, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s long résumé might be a liability. And Martin O’Malley went straight at that issue.

Asked whether Mrs. Clinton is the change that people are looking for, Mr. O’Malley — who was standing right next to her — said that he doubted that “a resort to old names” is what the voters are going to choose.

“Our country needs new leadership to move forward,” Mr. O’Malley said.

Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times; Video: By CNN

It was a stark accusation, and Mrs. Clinton appeared to be ready for it. She said that she “would not ask anyone to vote for me based on my last name” and insisted that she is running on a lifetime of experience.

“I certainly am not campaigning to become president because my last name is Clinton,” she said.

Bernie Sanders declined to be as direct. When he was asked the question about Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Sanders said only, “I think there is profound frustration all over this country with establishment politics.”

But look for more of that theme on the campaign trail. It is not going away.

She was smiling, but not ha-ha smiling.

Equally so, Alan, when Clinton said “the Republicans.”

Agreed, Maggie. A wasted opportunity–but perhaps a telling one. And a good implicit case for Clinton of why her presence in the field matters so much.

Has Lincoln Chafee had a single good moment?

Chafee says he is most proud of making an enemy of the coal lobby.

Home stretch. Here we go.

To return to Planned Parenthood, I am stunned that not one of the men on stage thought to raise the issue before Clinton did.

And Sanders, in that podcast, seemed to acknowledge how hard some of his proposals would be to accomplish. So I’m surprised this question didnt’ come up until now.

This is a really interesting topic because Sanders, in a podcast with David Axelrod a few weeks ago, criticized Obama for not taking the enthusiasm of his campaign into government.

On working across party lines, Sanders bemoans Republican obstructionism to Obama. Says to take on right wing Republicans, a political revolution will be required.

Clinton says she is not going to start smoking marijuana herself, but she supports the legalization of it for medical reasons and wants to loosen sentencing for recreational pot use.

Moving on to smoking pot. Sanders smoked it and would vote yes on legalizing it in Nevada. “I am seeing too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses.”

That line from Sanders — that we are an “international embarrassment” for our family leave policy — will resonate deeply with his supporters, but it is not the most presidential of lines.

“We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans,” Clinton says. And by raising it first, she deprived the other candidates of trying to score points by doing it.

Clinton just mentions Planned Parenthood, which is the first time it has come up in this debate.

Fact Check | Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Split on Financial Reform

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton.CreditJosh Haner/The New York Times

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed over their plans to reform Wall Street, a debate that exposes fault lines within the Democratic Party.

“My plan is more comprehensive and, frankly, it’s tougher,” said Mrs. Clinton, a notion Mr. Sanders strongly resisted. “Well, it’s not true,” he said later.

Their differences are largely a matter of opinion, but here are the policy issues at the root of the disagreement.

Mrs. Clinton introduced a financial reform proposal last week that does include meaningful policy changes to build on the Dodd-Frank financial reform law and that would make life more difficult with mega-banks. It includes a new fee for large, risky banks, new authority for regulators to potentially break them up and a new focus on overseeing the unregulated “shadow banking” markets that were an often-overlooked cause of the last crisis.

Mr. Sanders has instead emphasized reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, a Depression-era law to separate commercial from investment banking, which was repealed under the Clinton administration.

The two candidates largely agree in the direction of financial reform, favoring policies to try to reduce risk, even if it means less profitable banks.

But Mrs. Clinton is more focused on specific reforms to address the causes of the last crisis and potential sources of the next. Mr. Sanders is more focused on reducing the size and political influence of the biggest banks.

Fact Check | Lincoln Chafee’s Vote on Banking Came After Father’s Death

Lincoln Chafee.
Lincoln Chafee.CreditJosh Haner/The New York Times

Lincoln Chafee had a gimme-a-break moment when he was asked about his 1999 vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, which struck down the wall between commercial and investment banks.

Mr. Chafee seemed to find the question to be unfair, deflecting that he had just taken office and that he was dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death. Mr. Chafee’s response would lead some to believe that he was vastly unprepared for that important vote.

But here is a look at the timeline: The final vote came on Nov. 4, 1999, the same day Mr. Chafee was sworn in as Rhode Island’s senator. He filled the seat vacated by the death of his father, John Chafee, on Oct. 24, 1999.

This is a riff from her stump speech, and it’s been consistent even before she was a candidate.

Clinton recalling her days as a young mother with a sick kid.

Clinton gets a question on mandated, paid family leave, which Fiorina opposes. Clinton uses California as an example of why it can work without problems. “This is typical Republican scare tactics,” she says.

I’m really struck by the degree to which the party seems to have moved on from the Iraq War, by the way. Sanders made clear he was going to make this a big issue — re-released his floor speech in Congress from 2002 over the weekend — and was going to yoke it to other issues where she’s changed positions.

Clinton recalling the story where she and Obama went hunting for the Chinese to push their climate change.

Is Sanders tougher on climate change than Clinton? The Vermont senator highlighted his push to tax carbon, pivots to campaign finance reform. Where is Lawrence Lessig?

Democrats Offer Contrast With Republicans on Immigration

In a Democratic debate that offers many contrasts with Republicans, perhaps no difference was as stark as the conversation about immigration.

On the stage in Las Vegas, the candidates went out of their way to demonstrate their support for immigrants, with most of them saying they support allowing illegal immigrants some access to Obamacare and receiving in-state tuition for attending college.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Martin O’Malley both said they would go further than President Clinton did when he took executive action to allow millions of illegal immigrants to live and work in the United States without fear of deportation.

Asked whether illegal immigrants should have access to subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, Jim Webb said, “I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

All of which could not be more different from the Republican debates, where most of the candidates repeatedly declared their desire to rid the country of all 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Mrs. Clinton sought to highlight those differences, at one point noting that the Democratic candidates were offering a different message than Republicans, who she said have “demonized hardworking immigrants and who have insulted them.”

The audience in Las Vegas watching the debate.
The audience in Las Vegas watching the debate.CreditJosh Haner/The New York Times

Webb gets a chance to defend why he is pro-coal and pro-Keystone.

And Cooper is a very good one.

Moderators are actually a good thing.


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