Everyone indulges it, but at this stage of the game, who won? and who lost? are the least interesting questions of the presidential debates. More useful is what did you learn? After all, that’s the point of debates—to learn about candidates as they address moderators, answer questions, and interact with each other. In the GOP debates, for example, no one has cared what Jeb Bush has to say about taxes, as long as he’s in the mainstream of the party. What actually matters is how he responds to pressure and provocation, and on both scores—in the debates, at least—he has failed.
On Saturday, Democrats held their second presidential debate, this time at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Hosted by CBS News and led by John Dickerson (also a Slate colleague of mine), the topics ranged from ISIS and the attacks in Paris to immigration reform and gun control. And watching the three-way fight between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, what did we learn?
Hillary Clinton is stuck when it comes to foreign policy. As a matter of strategy, Clinton won’t critique or criticize the Obama administration. At every turn, she praises President Obama and his accomplishments. And it makes sense—she wants to endear herself to rank-and-file Democrats, including black Americans, who strongly support the president. But there are places where Obama could have done better, or had the wrong judgment. To many observers, that includes the Middle East. We know Clinton has a critique of Obama’s policy toward the Middle East, especially with regards to ISIS—she says so in her book, Hard Choices.
And so during the debate Clinton struggled to defend Obama’s record on the Middle East, and his past stance toward ISIS in particular. “Won’t the legacy of this administration, which you were a part of, won’t that legacy be that it underestimated the threat from ISIS?” Dickerson asked. Clinton didn’t have an answer. Instead, she offered the audience what she would do as president, without reckoning with the choices she made—with Obama—while secretary of state. This approach continued even as the debate turned to other subjects. When faced with problems in the Affordable Care Act, for instance, Clinton can’t make a forthright critique. Instead, she has to praise the policy, praise Obama, and find some way to move forward. It’s tough and it’s tedious, and it’s an unneeded drag on Clinton’s candidacy; the kind of problem that could spawn new problems, if she can’t deal with it. Put differently, the easiest way for Clinton to escape the trap of the status quo is to break with Obama and put real distance between his administration, and her prospective one.
Bernie Sanders has a similar issue. With his economic ideas, Sanders is a steamroller—the most aggressive exchange of the night came when Sanders critiqued Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, from policy to donations. (This prompted a strange and memorable counter from Clinton, who referenced female voters and Sept. 11 in an effort to show her quality as a political figure.) But on everything else, and especially firearms, Sanders is muddled. “There were parts of that bill which agree with—I disagree,” he said in reference to a law granting legal immunity to gun dealers and manufacturers. “I am certainly, absolutely, willing to look at that bill again and make sure there’s a stronger bill.” This was a far cry from the quasi-revolutionary rhetoric Sanders has become known for, and it hurt him—he looked smaller on stage when he wouldn’t give a simple answer on guns. Sanders’ performance left the impression that the Vermont senator doesn’t want to be president. He wants to pull Clinton to the left and reshape the national Democratic Party’s approach to economics. Outside of those (vital) issues, Sanders has nothing to say.
Martin O’Malley had a strong night. It’s not surprising that O’Malley is fluent in policy across several dimensions. But this debate was the first time he showed real knowledge and skill. He kept himself in the game, responding to both Clinton and Sanders, while touting his record as governor of Maryland (while, later in the night, downplaying his challenges as mayor of Baltimore). It was the first time, for my part, that I saw any fire in O’Malley. If there was a winner in the debate, he takes the prize. Unfortunately for O’Malley, it’s hard to imagine a world in which this does him much good. There just aren’t many people watching a presidential debate on a Saturday night, and while the former governor had a great performance, it’s unlikely that many beyond reporters and political junkies actually watched.
Which gets to the big picture of this debate. Yes, Republicans may lift some rhetoric for attack ads, and the polls might move a little, but the basic shape of the race is intact. If there’s a difference, it’s that—thanks to sharp questioning from my colleague John Dickerson—we can see weaknesses that weren’t apparent before. The discussions went at the heart of each candidacy. And Hillary Clinton, who is running for the general election as much as she is the primary, needs to improve her game.
Disclosure: Jamelle Bouie is a regular political analyst on CBS.