AP Photo/Mic Smith
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, left, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders stand together at the NBC, YouTube Democratic presidential debate at the Gaillard Center, Sunday, January 17, 2016, in Charleston, South Carolina.

Dem 4: Last Train to Snarksville

Steve Russell

There’s a trainload of anger out there, and this is the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses in which to unload it.

On the Republican side, we’ve got The Donald claiming stupid people are running the country and his opponents are all losers. It’s a bit ironic that he may be the farthest to the left in a crowd throwing elbows to get to the right but Trump does not care where he is… and that’s what people like about him.

On the Democratic side, an old guy who brags about never running negative advertising is channeling the anger. His refusal to mud wrestle means that he does not suffer as much as some might from the problem of debating a woman without appearing patronizing or sexist.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has been aggressive, but nobody is listening.  He struggles to break into double digits in a three-person race.  His failure to get on the ballot in Ohio, of all places, pretty well sticks a fork in his campaign. The candidates who claim to represent the next generation are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida on the GOP side and O’Malley on the Democratic side, but the polling says the young voters like Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Sanders came as close to trickery as we are likely to see from him when he released his “Medicare for all” plan the day of the debate. That means the Clintonistas are short of time to figure out how he intends to pay for it and line up the gun sights on whatever taxes he has in mind. Of course, I haven’t read it either, and I will be surprised if the moderators have.

It’s a political truism that the closer candidates are on substance, the more vicious they become. That explains the Republican side. In the matter of candidate snark former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton benefits from her association with the Great Triangulator, because if she adopts his positions, then there’s a big difference between Ms. Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I personally struggle with how much of Bill it’s fair to attribute to Hillary. My memories of the 2008 race do not help. The big difference I remember between Clinton and Obama was over the mandate that everyone who could afford health insurance had to buy it. On that issue, Obama was wrong. He had not done the numbers and she had. Her battle scars from the last health care fight served her well.

On the foreign policy side in 2008, it was like pulling teeth to get her to admit that her vote to authorize the second Iraq War was wrong. Obama opposed that war publicly, but he didn’t have a vote to cast. Even after the Iraq debacle, though, I expect the U.S. to get more hawkish than Obama if anybody is elected but Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, or Rand Paul. And Rand Paul is a political zombie—he’s dead but he hasn’t fallen down.

Normally, second choices matter in Iowa, because if your candidate lacks enough bodies to elect a delegate, you can caucus with your second choice. The GOP is in this boat, but with only three candidates and only two in double digits, the Democrats don’t have to worry about second choices.  So it is all right, short term, to piss off your opponent’s supporters. They have until November to get over it.

Co-moderator Lester Holt asked a modest first question of all three candidates.  What are the top three things you would like to accomplish in your first 100 days?

Bernie Sanders went first and—oddly enough—was most specific. It was odd because he had the least time to think. He was not exactly modest, though. He wanted to establish health care as a right, raise the minimum wage to $15, and put people to work by fixing the country’s infrastructure.

I thought that was a lot to bite off in 100 days, but it turned out I hadn’t heard nothin’ yet.

Hillary Clinton talked about what she called a jobs plan that pretty well touched all the bases of a Democratic agenda. Then she wanted to improve Obamacare, and as best I can tell the major change she wants is to scrap the deal Obama had to cut with Big Pharma to get them to call off their lobbyist dogs and get it passed. That political bargain was necessary but it’s low hanging fruit for cutting costs. Finally, she will “bring the country together” within 100 days.


Martin O’Malley stuffed most of his platform into number one just like Ms. Clinton. Immigration reform was merely a subcategory, to give you some idea of the size of his early agenda. Second, he wants to govern a country where both parties believe in science, so we can have all the domestic jobs that would go with lowering our carbon footprint. Finally, he wanted to see an “agenda for cities” but the specifics he blurted out were not very new. We’ve had Community Development Block Grants since 1974.

Sanders’ modest specificity “won” the realism contest, but only in relation to the others. If going to Mars is possible (and it is), Sanders was on Neptune but the other two were outside the orbit of Pluto.

The first specific issue question was on gun control, and Clinton eviscerated Sanders. Every time he tries to explain his vote to immunize gun makers from products liability lawsuits, he sounds more defensive and goofy. He should take a cue from what Clinton finally came to in explaining her vote to authorize the Iraq War: “I blew it.”

Sanders proposed that straw purchase of firearms should be a federal crime. He is apparently unaware of the Supreme Court decision in Abramski v. U.S. that upheld that very law in 2014. Oops.

O’Malley broke in to observe that Sanders and Clinton were accusing each other of being inconsistent on gun control, “and I agree with both of them.”

Sanders was given the opportunity to explain why Clinton is beating him 2-1 among minority voters. He said it is because they don’t know him yet, and that sounds credible since it’s not been that long when his name identification was less than any random Sesame Street character.

Later in the debate, Clinton was given the opportunity to explain why Sanders is beating her 2-1 among young voters. To her credit, she did not try to claim that young voters don’t know her. Her problem is just the opposite. She said she would work hard to earn their support, and that is about all she could say.

Sanders wants the Justice Department to do an automatic investigation of every death while in custody. The Bureau of Justice Statistics is flaky on this through no fault of its own, because there is no way to force local law enforcement to report, but my best guess is there are between 750 and 1,000 such deaths per year. If Sanders is serious, either the DOJ investigations are going to be less thorough or a lot more expensive.

He also called for “community policing,” which had already been a buzzword for ten years when I started teaching criminal justice twenty years ago.

His heart is in the right place, but that old boy needs to know more about the current lay of the land.

Lester Holt asked Clinton what should follow the failed “war on drugs,” and she seemed well aware that it’s mostly a state level problem but she did not use that to duck the question. She wants police and firefighters trained to respond to overdoses and she wants what is now criminalized medicalized.

Sanders took a verbal shot at the drug companies that produce opioids but did not explain what they are doing wrong, since they do not prescribe drugs and it’s not lawful to hand out free samples of Schedule Two drugs.

Turning to reining in the outlaw banks that brought the economy to its knees, Sanders and O’Malley once more called for rebuilding the walls of the Glass-Steagall Act among commercial banks and investment banks and insurance that served us so well from the Great Depression until Bill Clinton signed the repeal in 1999.

Once again, Clinton asserted that her proposals were stronger than Glass-Steagall, but did not effectively explain how.

Sanders complained that the mega-investment bank, Goldman Sachs (which we in the snark business called Golden Sacks for the way it looted the taxpayers) was fined $5 billion for bad conduct but nobody went to jail and Golden Sacks could take $5 billion out of the petty cash drawer.

He went on to point out that two Secretaries of the Treasury—one Democrat and one Republican—had come out of Golden Sacks and that the bank had paid Ms. Clinton $600,000 in speaking fees in one year. I guess they must have been really valuable words.

Sanders later promised not to appoint as Secretary of the Treasury anybody from Golden Sacks.

Clinton offered her “no new taxes on the middle class” pander, which may be good politics but is really bad policy.

O’Malley wants to tax capital gains (money made from money) at the same rate as money made from work. So do I, but I shall not hold my breath.

The dive into foreign policy was brief in spite of the moderators’ best efforts to stir the pot.

Would Bernie Sanders favor diplomatic relations with Iran? Yes, as a goal, but not immediately.

Sanders was offered an opportunity to blame the rise of ISIS on Sec. Clinton’s diplomacy, but he declined.

Would Clinton hand Vladimir Putin another reset button? “It depends on what I get for it.” She then listed off what she got from Russia in exchange for the first reset button, and it sounded like a pretty good deal.

A question about the tech industries and privacy resulted in speeches by both Clinton and Sanders that made it sound like there is no conflict between privacy and what the government wants. That’s called begging the question. The conflict is easily resolved because there is no conflict.


I prefer O’Malley’s quaint invocation of the Fourth Amendment: if the government wants to look at your stuff, it should have to get a warrant.

As the debate wound up, O’Malley got his biggest laugh of the evening without saying a word when asked, “Is there anything you wanted to say that you haven’t had a chance to say?”

O’Malley flashed a big grin and the audience roared with laughter. He had spent the whole evening trying to get a few words in while Clinton and Sanders talked over each other and the moderators. He then gave a short version of his stump speech.

Sanders did the same. We can’t do anything without taking back our democracy from the corporations. I’m the only candidate without a superPAC.

Clinton talked about the situation in Flint, Michigan, where the children are showing alarming lead levels in their blood because a minion of the governor messed up their water system and then he and the governor denied having done so for months and tried to discredit the doctor who blew the whistle on the lead poisoning.

She described the problem and what she had done about it and the result she got.

Sanders said, lamely, “I agree with all that but I’d like to add that I called on the governor to resign.”

Polling going into this debate showed Clinton and Sanders within the margin of error in the first two states to act. Clinton has a slight advantage in Iowa and Sanders has a slight advantage in New Hampshire. Then come the Nevada caucuses and the South Carolina primary, both of which are polling for Clinton outside the margin of error.

If tonight’s debate can break the statistical tie in the first two states, Clinton will win, and if she takes those states it becomes hard to see where Sanders overtakes her. I could be wrong about Clinton winning the debate if most people did not catch Sanders’ fumbles on criminal justice issues, but even if that’s so her remarks about the poisoned water in Flint made her a powerful closer.

The entertainment value was high this time and so was the substance. The candidates meet next in Wisconsin on February 11, two days after the New Hampshire primary.

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