Saturday, November 7, 2015

Candidate Forum a Win for Democrats, Maddow

The Democrats' First in the South Candidate Forum, hosted by Rachel Maddow, was a very different format than any of the other candidate formats so far this season. It had the potential for falling off the rails quite easily, as it was a one-on-one between each candidate and Maddow surrounded by South Carolina voters. However, Maddow managed each specialized engagement well enough, actually garnering some new information from each candidate.

In general, the only loser in this forum were the Republicans. Each candidate was serious, engaged and engaging, and seemed at least somewhat more capable and likable than we’ve been given the chance in any of the other candidate/debate formats. Primarily, this forum was a vessel designed for voters to get to know better Senator Bernie Sanders, and more importantly, Governor Martin O’Malley. Secretary Hillary Clinton, being perceived to be the most known candidate, had the opportunity to reinforce, further energize, and begin rebuilding her relationship with some voters. 

Sanders, for all of his vigor, passion, and obvious energized backing of a historic 750,000 donors, has not been able to make any inroads with minority voters. This was yet another opportunity for him to broaden and brighten his message, reach more diverse populations, and recapture some of the energy that his campaign has lost with the resurgence of the Clinton campaign.

I do disagree with critics, though, that he wasn't specific in some of his answers, as he was regarding his vote to allow guns in checked luggage on Amtrak, which Maddow challenged him quite effectively to specify. He actually had sold me on his entire gun violence voting record until he doubled down on his shouting comments regarding advocates on the issue. This is extremely incongruent of Bernie. His criticism of Hillary about guns when juxtaposed with his own passions about issues and how he delivers these during his stump speeches and sit-down interviews just doesn’t make any sense. And, this is really what he reiterated during most of this forum, yet again. Consistency is great, but monotony at some point becomes stale.

Beyond that, he's not become any more or less specific on how and what he would do to actually tackle campaign finance reform that differentiates himself from Hillary, other than not allowing Super PACs  for his candidacy, handicapping his campaign in the process.

Also, he's not offered anything near the specificity and breadth of policies that Clinton has offered for the broader economy. He's just repeated this same angry mantra of big business, big money, and that somehow these tentacles are all over everyone, except himself, of course.

He does call for an increase in the minimum wage much higher than Hillary does, free college tuition for all, and the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. These are his differentiated positions that have some specificity regarding the what, but the how, however, is left for us to figure out. 

He also has very vague foreign policy positions, all predicated on his handful of 'courageous' votes on these issues from his safe Senate seat in rural Vermont. Certainly, there’s no criticism for voting on the right side of history, especially after history has begun weighing in on these issues. However, that isn’t a foreign policy strategy. Most of his foreign policy hinges on other countries doing the right thing, and, I gather, other countries not doing the wrong thing, like Russia, Iran, China, and others.

Sanders does rile up the audience whenever he talks about taking on government. His anti-establishment, taking on the big money, big business, Wall Street message certainly drives the excitement behind his campaign. Does this message have enough to win enough primary voters then win 270 electoral votes for the general?

Clinton had a completely different energy and atmosphere during the forum. She was upbeat and seemingly optimistic. She began by giving credit to President Obama for saving the country and the economy from crisis. She then talked about doing more.

Her entire message seems directed toward all of America, which she referenced as ‘the struggling, the striving, and the successful.’ Maddow pressed her on being able to adequately represent the interests of the American people versus Wall Street and the thriving tech industry, considering the donations and speaking fees she received from them over the course of her career. Clinton claimed that anyone who thinks she could be influenced by others in that way doesn’t know her very well, which critics weren’t buying. 

Clinton was also pressed about her comments regarding the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act during President Clinton’s presidency. She had said it was to protect the gay community from a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage back in the 90s. She defended those remarks saying she had definitely had private conversations about that possibility, which was reinforced by all the state amendments banning gay marriage that went forward after DOMA. She reiterated that the fight for GBLT rights was far from over, and that she would continue to fight for those rights.

Some Democrats, wary of a potentially more hawkish Clinton presidency, may or may not have had their fears eased when she stated she wouldn’t be any more aggressive than Obama has been. 

Clearly, Clinton has a demeanor that unsettles some on the far left because she has moderated, nuanced positions. She, after all, was the chief diplomat for America. I doubt Clinton’s forum performance gained her any new supporters, but it probably reinforced and strengthened her current support and gains she had made after the first debate.

As far as O’Malley, he had the most to gain from this sort of forum. It was the first opportunity for many to get to know him and see him. At first, he appeared a little uncomfortable. The best part of his forum performance was his passion about the military and when he introduced the idea of a War Tax. He was very likable, seemed knowledgable enough, but lacked any major breakthrough moment. 

The best part of the debate was actually Maddow. She was obviously well prepared and had a plan to challenge each candidate on specific issues. My only criticism of the forum would be in its brevity. Sanders seemed most apt to return to his stump speech than the other candidates, but that’s when he seems most natural. That may spell trouble for his longterm viability and adaptability. Clinton only dodged some of the envelope questions, which seemed somehow different then the other two candidates’ questions. Of course, it was somewhat random, but asking any of these candidates to pick a Republican for a running mate seems odd to me.

Above all, this was a win for the Democrat Party. The demeanor, the discussion regarding the failures of the party nationally and locally is vital for both parties to have. What motivates potential voters to not become more involved? These are questions both parties need to answer. I hope the Republican Party can have a more substantive debate next week. A smaller group of candidates may yield better results.

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