Hillary Won the First Dem Debate Because the Others Are Even More Terrible Candidates

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The consensus of the talking heads is that Hillary Clinton was the clear winner in last night’s Democratic debate. But some focus groups and online polls suggested that Bernie Sanders held his own. Clearly, she did better last night than she has so far in her controversy-mired campaign.

There were some sharp exchanges, but none of the other candidates managed to damage her. In one sense, Clinton prevailed because her opponents were so weak.

For example, conservative commentator Erick Erickson observed, “I’m still amazed the other four candidates made Hillary Clinton come off as the likable, reasonable, responsible Democrat.”

National Journal’s Ron Fournier wrote that Hillary Clinton won “because she’s a strong debater. She won because Bernie Sanders is not.”

Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker summed it up well: “Hillary Clinton won because all of her opponents are terrible.”

What They Discussed

Bernie Sanders used valuable airtime last night to defend socialism, saying that “countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway” were models we should emulate.

He and other candidates offered a wish list of new spending plans — while we are still running $500 billion deficits — and I don’t recall Anderson Cooper asking any of them, “How are you going to pay for it?” (According to one analysis, Sanders is proposing about $18 trillion in new spending over ten years.)

They bemoaned the state of the economy, stagnant wages and the struggles of middle class families — all valid concerns. But they seemed to have forgotten that George W. Bush is not president — Barack Obama is. And his socialist policies have smothered economic growth. Why would we want more of the same?

They tried to outbid one another on raising the minimum wage and in pandering to illegal immigrants. Clinton suggested illegal immigrants should be eligible for Obamacare subsidies. O’Malley said he would “go further than President Obama has” when it comes to using executive orders to change our immigration policies.

To the extent that foreign policy was discussed, the debate largely centered around relitigating the Iraq war. There was virtually no discussion about what they would do now, as America is on defense everywhere around the world.

Asked what was the greatest national security threat facing the nation, two candidates offered climate change. I don’t recall any solutions for dealing with the Islamic State, the refugee crisis or Iran’s behavior since the nuclear deal. Israel was mentioned only once.

What You Didn’t Hear

Anderson Cooper studiously avoided anything related to cultural and values issues. Where were the “gotcha questions” that Republicans always get — like who wants to ban contraception? The sanctity of life only came up when Hillary praised Planned Parenthood and “a woman’s right to choose.”

That would have been a good opportunity for Cooper to ask, “Is there one abortion anyone on this stage would legally prevent?” When it comes to abortion, Democrats are the real extremists on the issue. The GOP nominee must be prepared to raise this issue on his or her own.

Here’s another “gotcha question.” Every Republican has had to answer whether they would vote for a Muslim to be president. Devout Muslims oppose same-sex marriage and abortion. Hillary could have been asked if she would vote for a Muslim candidate who supports Sharia law.

The closest thing to a “gotcha question” the candidates were asked came when a law student asked, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?”

That should have been an easy question to answer. Martin Luther King said our goal should be a society where we are judged by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. But only one candidate (Jim Webb) could tell that audience, “All lives matter.” The rest of them cowered.

Weird Moments

Beyond Bernie Sanders’ defense of socialism, two telling moments really stood out to me. Anderson Cooper asked the candidates, “Which enemy are you most proud of?” Lincoln Chafee said coal companies. Martin O’Malley said the NRA. Bernie Sanders said Wall Street.

Hillary Clinton said Iranians and, of course, Republicans. But when did she make Iran an enemy? Hillary started the secret talks that led to the terrible nuclear deal, which she supports!

Then there was Jim Webb’s response. Referring to his combat experience in Vietnam, Webb said, “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.” Webb’s answer was met with total silence.

If someone had said that during a Republican debate, the audience would have erupted in applause. If someone said that in any bar or neighborhood picnic, the instinctive reaction of most Americans would be appreciation for their service. But not at that forum packed full of leftists.

What Republicans Can Learn

Is there a lesson here for the GOP? Yes.

Hillary prevailed because her opponents were easy on her. They treated her the way McCain and Romney treated Obama in the debates — and they lost too.

I could not help but imagine Jeb Bush on that stage with Hillary Clinton. Given his weak performance in the debates so far, who do you think would win?

Gary L. Bauer served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration for eight years, as Under Secretary of Education and as President Reagan’s Chief Domestic Policy Advisor.