Who Won the Democratic Debate?

December 20, 2015, 3:48 AM UTC

Hillary Clinton won the third Democratic presidential debate.

We typically avoid such categorical declarations about events in which a range of candidates present their competing views about how they’d seek to lead the country through a thicket of complex policy debates. Viewers of different ideological stripes, after all, will see the contender most closely aligned with their own positions as having prevailed.

But from a purely strategic perspective, the burden coming into the final head-to-head among Democratic hopefuls before the first contest in Iowa rested entirely on the challengers to Clinton, now the overwhelming heavy for her party’s nod. Each of them, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, needed either a transformational performance or a crippling stumble by Clinton to bend the trajectory of the race. Neither achieved it.

Instead, both struggled to emphasize the degrees by which they differed from the program she’s offering, without beginning to articulate a difference of kind. The effect on the whole was of a trio of competitors arguing over the proper pressure to apply in a hug with the others on the stage at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The point of contention with the most explosive potential heading into the event — the mini-controversy over the Bernie Sanders campaign’s breach of proprietary Clinton camp data, thanks to a lapse by a Democratic National Committee digital vendor — diffused in the opening minutes. Sanders offered an unqualified apology for his staffer’s role in the episode and pledged to pursue an independent investigation into how it came about; Clinton accepted; and both agreed to move on to the policy concerns animating the election. O’Malley, who’d obviously prepared for a more fiery exchange between his two rivals, then stepped in to deploy a canned line about how the episode demonstrated what’s wrong with Washington politics. Juxtaposed against the gentile back-and-forth that preceded it, however, the Maryland governor’s broadside had a mostly comic impact.

The moment served as a decent encapsulation of the night’s dynamic. Three candidates who agree far more than they divert both in diagnosing the problems challenging the country domestically and internationally and in the broad outlines of how to tackle them appeared to strain at times to make more of their differences than they reasonably merited.

The terrorist attack in San Bernardino that brought the war against ISIS home to the U.S. helped frame the first portion of the debate. Clinton’s challengers drew their sharpest distinctions in arguing for how to bring that fight back to the enemy where they reside in Syria and Iraq. Clinton defended her advocacy for regime change in Syria, whereas Sanders and O’Malley contended any focus on deposing Bashar al-Assad in Syria would only distract from the priority of destroying ISIS. Mostly, however, the candidates agreed: on the need to assemble an international coalition, led by Muslim fighters on the ground, to confront the ISIS threat; on finding ways to work with the tech industry to improve the intelligence gathering capabilities of counterterrorism forces without compromising consumer privacy; and on decrying Donald Trump’s calls for a ban on Muslim travel to the U.S. as fueling the clash-of-civilizations propaganda that terrorists use to recruit new radicals.

In the second hour, talk turned to more purely domestic concerns. ABC moderator David Muir referenced a June 2007 Fortune cover that proclaimed, “Business Loves Hillary,” to ask whether corporate America should still feel that way. “Everybody should,” Clinton said, to laughter from the audience. Both Sanders and O’Malley took the opportunity to inveigh against the ways in which they claimed Clinton’s friendliness with the corporate class compromises her ability to take on the cause of lower and middle income Americans, particularly against Wall Street. But Clinton, by now a battle-hardened debater, effectively parried.

Her turnabout in that exchange, and over the course of the night, highlighted an odd fact. This was the second Democratic debate in a row staged on a Saturday night, a scheduling decision by the DNC that appears designed to diminish viewership in order to protect Clinton from any campaign-rattling mishap. Clinton, evidently, doesn’t need the help. Considering her commanding position in the primary, more such events could only help to steel her for the real fight in the general election.

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