The Roundup: Democrats stick to high road in first debate

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LAS VEGAS – It was all cordiality and handshakes Tuesday during the first of six Democratic presidential debates, making it a night to bolster the campaign of frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

Out of all the candidates on the debate stage, CNN gave the former secretary of state a whopping 30 minutes and 26 seconds of air time, compared with a meager 9 minutes and 2 seconds for Lincoln Chafee, the Republican senator and Democratic governor of Rhode Island. Bernie Sanders, an independent Vermont senator and Clinton’s nearest competitor, ate up 26 minutes and 42 seconds.

Martin O’Malley, a former Maryland governor, clocked about 16 minutes while Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator, logged 14 minutes and 23 seconds. Webb appeared to chafe at the limits on his exposure.

“I’ve been waiting for 10 minutes,” Webb said in an exasperated tone when moderator Anderson Cooper cut short his comments on Russia’s military role in the Syrian civil war.

“You agreed to these debate rules,” Cooper responded.

Whatever the rules were, it became clear from the outset that this would be Clinton’s night to shine.

Starting with guns

A little more than 10 minutes into the debate, Cooper raised the topic of gun controls, reflecting on the mass shooting earlier this month at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal national poll showed Clinton losing ground to Sanders, dropping to a mere seven-point lead at the end of September from 60 in June. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist who has positioned himself to the left of Clinton on almost every issue, is noticeably more conservative when it comes to regulating firearms.

Clinton latched onto the issue to highlight her opponent’s stance when Cooper brought up the topic. Asked by Cooper whether Sanders is “tough enough on guns,” Clinton pointed out five Sanders votes against the Brady bill, a 1993 law mandating federal background checks on retail buyers.

Answering Cooper’s question, she said, “no, not at all,” prompting a perplexed look from Sanders.

Clinton also blasted her opponent’s support for immunity to protect gun manufacturers from liability lawsuits when their products are used to commit crimes.

“I voted against it,” Clinton said of the issue. “I was in the Senate at the same time; it wasn’t that complicated to me. It was pretty straightforward to me, that he was going to give immunity to the only industry in America — everybody else has to be accountable, but not the gun manufacturers.”

A visibly annoyed Sanders pushed back by pointing out that he represents a rural state. According to a recent study produced by researchers for the journal Injury Prevention, almost 29 percent of Vermonters own guns. By comparison, the figure is just over 14 percent in similarly rural New Hampshire.

Not to be outdone, O’Malley jumped in to point out that Maryland is also mostly rural but has passed stricter gun control laws.

“But you have not been in the United States Congress,” Sanders shot back

“Well, maybe that’s a good thing,” O’Malley swiftly rejoined.

About those emails…

Those tuning in to the debate looking for a smackdown on Clinton over her use of a private email server while serving as the nation’s top diplomat waited in vain.

When Cooper served up a chance for Sanders to take the shot, he instead seized the opportunity to belittle the issue that has dogged his opponent throughout the campaign, fueled by an ongoing congressional inquiry into a deadly terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

“Let me say something that may not be great politics,” Sanders said, turning to Clinton. “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.”

His comment prompted cheers from the audience and a handshake from Clinton.

Just the facts, ma’am

As is often evident in political debates, candidates are prone to rewriting history. This cropped up Tuesday, as Clinton tried to explain her recent denunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement between the U.S. and 11 nations that dot the Pacific rim. Regarding her earlier comments about the deal as setting the “gold standard” for such pacts, she said that had merely been her “hope,” not her judgment of its merits.

In fact, as secretary of state, Clinton never used any version of the word ‘hope’ in describing the agreement.

“This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements,” Clinton said in remarks while visiting Australia, one of the participants in the deal, in November 2012.

Clinton’s other fibs came when she asserted that the U.S. loses “90 people a day from gun violence.” A federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows that more than 60 percent of deaths caused by firearms were suicides. She also claimed that her use of a private email server to conduct government business didn’t violate State Department rules. That’s true, but omits the fact that government policy requires federal officials like Clinton to preserve their job-related email and hand it over when leaving a position. It took Clinton almost two years to turn over her email records after she left the State Department.

Sanders also stoked the fact-check fest when he asserted that the U.S. has “more wealth and income inequality than any other country,” a claim he has made repeatedly throughout his campaign.

According to the World Bank, however, there are at least 41 nations with higher concentrations of income held by the top 10 percent than the U.S., including Brazil, Mexico and Russia.

Cheering from the press?

Most political reporters try to stay neutral but one glaring instance suggested a lack of impartiality among many of the journalists on hand in Las Vegas.

That awkward moment arrived when Sanders answered Cooper’s question about Clinton’s email, according to Hunter Walker of Yahoo News and Dave Rubin of Ora TV:

 

 

Or it may just be a sign that some reporters are sick of the controversy and would like to move on.

Biden time

For a guy who hasn’t even entered the race, Vice President Joe Biden is dramatically out-polling three out of the five Democratic candidates, trailing only Clinton and Sanders. CNN was willing to set aside room for a late entry by the former Delaware senator up until the 11th hour.

Biden didn’t show — he’s still not an official candidate. According to a spokesman for the vice president, Biden spent Tuesday night hosting a high school reunion, Business Insider reported. Afterwards, he tuned in to watch the debate on TV along with 15.3 million other viewers.

Yet if he remains on the fence over a run, Biden’s shadow probably will continue to loom over the Democratic primary race until it’s clear either that the government will seek an indictment against Clinton stemming from the email issue, or it won’t.

On the issues

By comparison with the last two bare-knuckled Republican debates, all five candidates engaged in a back-and-forth that was a more genteel and courteous, according to many political observers.

“The grown-ups take the stage at the Democratic debate,” pronounced a New York Times editorial. “Civility was a big winner on Tuesday night and the discussion of real issues was refreshing.”

Pundits, however, have said it was Cooper’s heavy-handed gate-keeping that prevented the more freewheeling exchanges of views that characterized the GOP forums.

Despite the patina of civility, divisions showed among the candidates on prominent liberal issues.

1. Clinton – The former first lady did not seek to out-liberal Sanders, while asserting her credentials as a progressive Democrat. She described herself as a “progressive who likes to get things done.” She also avoided throwing daggers at American capitalism, saying that doing so would be a “grave mistake” that would ignore a primary driver in the formation of “the greatest middle class in history.”

Memorable line: “We are not Denmark. We are the United States of America” – a jab at Sanders’s love of all things reflecting Scandinavian socialism.

2. Sanders – The Vermont senator and transplanted New Yorker vowed that after he wins the White House he’s “gonna explain what democratic socialism is,” and tossed out several proposals he’d like to enact, such as paid family leave. Sanders also ripped Wall Street as “part of the casino capitalist process” that enriches a very few at the expense of a great many Americans.

Memorable line: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” – a comment that suggests Sanders won’t try to make hay on the campaign trail over Clinton’s email practices.

3. O’Malley – The former Maryland governor made several attempts to court the liberals, including by pointing that the Free State passed its own version of the federal DREAM Act, which grants the children of illegal immigrants permanent U.S. residency. O’Malley played it safe and never found a breakout moment to propel his poll standing higher.

Memorable line: “Donald Trump, that carnival barker in the Republican party.” – it was inevitable that someone on stage would take a shot at the bombastic Republican frontrunner.

4. Webb – A Vietnam War hero, the former Navy secretary spent much of his limited speaking time complaining to Cooper that he wasn’t getting enough speaking time. Cooper brushed him off. On the issues, Webb’s views about China stood out. He said the Asian nation represents the “greatest day-to-day threat” to America involving cyber warfare. He was the only candidate to talk about China.

Memorable line: “I’d have to say the enemy soldier that threw the grenade that wounded me, but he’s not around right now to talk to.” – responding to Cooper on the enemy he’s most proud of facing.

5. Chafee – The former Republican senator and Ocean State governor got tripped up when questioned about a 1999 Senate vote to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking after the 1929 stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. Chafee stammered and pointed out that it was his first vote after being appointed to the seat to fill out his late father’s term.

Memorable line: “You’re looking at a block of granite,” – to Cooper after being questioned about switching parties, as he went from Republican to independent to Democrat. Was he trying to appeal to New Hampshire voters, perhaps?

The next Democratic debate is scheduled for Nov. 14 at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Contact Evan Lips at [email protected] or on Twitter @evanmlips.

Past debate roundups:

The Roundup: GOP debate No. 2

The Roundup: GOP debate No. 1