Dem Debate 3: Clinton & Her Sparring Partners

Steve Russell

The whoosh of a light saber coming on is an appropriate symbol for politics in the age of corporate personhood and one dollar-one vote. It’s hard to cross the distance between the public interest and the political debate while limited by the speed of light, but some political rules never change.

It’s always been an axiom that if you are ahead, you do not want to debate. Only three things can happen if you are leading and two of them are bad. You can lose or you can talk to a draw, which elevates your opponent. Only a win leaves you ahead, but you were already ahead. There’s just no reason to take the risk.

Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is ahead and so her first choice would be not to debate at all, but that’s not an option. Since the Kennedy-Nixon debates, all serious candidates must debate or be tagged with disrespect for the voters.

Having to debate, the fallback position becomes as few debates as possible with as small an audience as possible.

This is not rocket science. Nor is figuring out that the Democratic National Committee is in the tank for Hillary Clinton. Look at the number of debates, the timing of the debates, and—most serious of all for the public interest—the DNC’s manipulation of the rules after the game started to shut out Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig.

Lessig, the last Jedi defending the republic, was only bringing one issue: the corruption of unlimited and anonymous money in politics. The Republican debate happened on a planet not endangered by climate change and the Democrats have chosen a world where unregulated political money only corrupts individual politicians rather than the entire system.

If the GOP candidates are auditioning to be Darth Vader, the Democrats have answered with a casting call for Jar Jar Binks.

Just before this third Democratic debate, a contractor working for the DNC dropped a firewall between candidates’ data. Workers on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign peeked. Sanders fired his national data director when he found out.

The DNC cut off the Sanders campaign’s access to the database and did not restore it until faced with a federal lawsuit.

The data breach issue hung over this third debate of six. The last contested election in 2008 saw 26 debates. The Republicans agreed with pulling back and reduced their debates from 20 down to 12.

This last debate of the year was televised on the last weekend before Christmas. A spokesman for the Sanders campaign told The New York Times, “I guess Christmas Eve was booked.”

As expected, the Great Data Heist was brought up early, but it came to nothing with this question:

“Sen. Sanders, do you owe Sec. Clinton an apology?”

Sanders: “Yes. I apologize.” There were a couple of beats that I took to be stunned silence before the applause started.

There was nothing more to be said about Datagate after that.

It’s hard to say whether the Republican chest pounding in their last debate was the reason, but all three Democratic candidates dialed their aggression up a notch. The Democratic aggression involved throwing elbows to get more speaking time. The Republican version was more about who could promise the most military confrontations the quickest.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, still polling in single digits, was the pushiest. O’Malley’s highest approval on the instant feedback counter last time was when he described GOP front runner Donald Trump as an “immigrant-bashing carnival barker.”

This time, O’Malley’s opening statement warned against “fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.” While he did not name The Donald, Trump was named several times and used as a verbal piñata all evening.

Just as in the second debate, all three candidates agreed that it would take boots on the ground in Syria to dislodge ISIS, but those boots ought to be Kurdish and Arab. They were all a bit light on how they would acquire those Kurdish and Arab boots.

Sanders did mention King Abdullah II of Jordan as a major Arab ally, which is true, but I thought it was probably a dig at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who claimed in the last Republican debate to intend a meeting with King Hussein of Jordan, the father of Abdullah II. Hussein died in 1999.

Later, one of the talking heads was accusing Sanders of calling the Jordanian monarch “King Abdul II.” I heard “Abdullah,” but I know the name and so I might be mistaken.

Co-moderator Martha Raddatz gave Sec. Clinton several opportunities to apologize for favoring the removal of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, but she declined.

The Gaddafi question provided Sanders an opportunity to restate his main foreign policy disagreement with Clinton that he thought she was too quick to get rid of bad people without having any idea who would fill the political vacuum created.

On the question of American boots on the ground in Syria, Clinton pointed out correctly that ISIS has been trying to bait us into that fight, because a U.S. “crusade” plays a part in the Islamic fundamentalist prophesies of how the End Times are supposed to go.

She also suggested that Donald Trump’s fulminations against all Muslims mean that Trump “is ISIS’s best recruiter.” That’s easy to understand, but another of her remarks was less so.

Clinton advocates a no-fly zone over Syria. She was asked if her rules of engagement would include shooting down Russian aircraft? She did not wish to say without seeing the circumstances.

Isn’t that a decision that should be made in advance? Clinton did not think so, and I find that as odd as not carrying the same principle—waiting to see the circumstances---over to a question on taxes.

Clinton promised there would be no tax increases “on the middle class,” by which she meant persons making less than $250,000 a year. Leaving aside where to draw the line, it’s just not a good idea to make promises about taxation because stuff happens. Ask the first President George “Read My Lips” Bush.

Neither Sanders nor O’Malley would make that promise to persons making less than $250,000. Both of them support what Sanders calls “a tax on speculation,” which means a penny or so per transaction on government regulated stock and commodity exchanges. That certainly could hit the middle class.

Both Sanders and O’Malley support reenacting the Glass-Steagall law, which kept investment banks separate from commercial banks and both of them separate from insurance. The Glass-Steagall firewall kept high stakes gamblers from tanking the economy from the New Deal to the Clinton administration, when it was repealed in the name of deregulation.

Clinton claims that her ideas are better than Glass-Steagall, something hard to evaluate without hearing the details. Perhaps recognizing that problem, Raddatz asked Clinton a “cut to the chase” question:

“Is corporate America going to love you?”

Clinton: “Everybody should!”

The same question came to Sanders:

“Is corporate America going to love you, Sen. Sanders?”


Bernie Sanders had that kind of night, and the crowd never did get used to Sanders giving straight answers like O’Malley never did get used to being an afterthought.

Martin O’Malley is a well-spoken ex-governor who has an excellent record, but the Democratic voters seem to want some experience in foreign affairs. This contrasts with Republican voters, who want no experience at all.

O’Malley on the Democratic side is like Rubio on the Republican side, claiming to represent the next generation. Polling says that young voters are breaking for the grumpy old socialist, Bernie Sanders.

The candidates came into this debate ranked Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley, and nothing happened that appeared likely to change that order. Perhaps because he had the most distance to cover in the polls, O’Malley tried to shove his way into every conversation, but Sanders and Clinton also came to talk. Sanders is too old for the second spot on the ticket, but O’Malley has a lot to recommend him for V.P.

Sanders’ grumpy self-presentation belies the fact that he promised at the front end not to engage in the politics of personal destruction. As a result of that promise, the debate, like the entire campaign so far, focused on differences voters would have to walk far into the policy weeds to see, farther than they are accustomed to traveling.

Clinton spent the entire evening punching right past Sanders and O’Malley at the Republicans, particularly the front running Donald Trump.

All three candidates had excellent performances and so there will probably be no change in Clinton’s commanding lead. Sensing that, Clinton flashed a big smile when she had the last word: “May the Force be with you.”

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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Martha Elizabeth Ture's picture
There are 2 questions that bother us all. One is how many American voters in battleground states will vote for Trump. The other is who are Rey's parents.
Martha Elizabet...