Highlights from the Second Democratic Debate (Nov. 14, 2015)

After their first presidential debate a month ago, and a more intimate “Candidate Forum” hosted by MSNBC, the remaining Democratic candidates — Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley — met in Des Moines Iowa, at Drake University, for a debate hosted by CBS’s John Dickerson. While the focus of this second debate was originally primarily domestic policy, the terrorist attacks in Paris, France the night before, which claimed upwards of 130 lives, shifted part of the discussion towards foreign policy, especially regarding efforts to combat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders

The highlights of the debate were mainly “unhighlights” — efforts by the Democratic candidates to look and act more serious than their Republican counterparts, especially Donald Trump, who Martin O’Malley characterized, in his biggest applause line of the night, as an “immigrant bashing carnival barker.” In case you missed it, here are some highlights from the debate.

Hillary Clinton Gives a Lesson on Terrorism

One of Bernie Sanders weakest points in this campaign is foreign policy, and with the debate’s unexpected focus on anti-terrorism, Hillary Clinton used much of her early time distinguishing herself as a veteran of the world stage, first as First Lady and then as a senator, presidential candidate, and Secretary of State. In response to a charge from Sanders that the U.S. is too readily involved in “regime change,” Hillary Clinton tried to convey that instances of terrorism around the world are complex and diverse, and the full menu of options should be available to respond to each of them.

O’Malley on “Boots on the Ground”

As a professed realist in the foreign policy realm, Martin O’Malley stressed the impact of war by relating a story from the campaign trail in which he said the mother of a soldier asked him not to use the term “boots on the ground” to refer to her son. It was a touching moment and an indicator of the stakes at play, were the U.S. to get more involved militarily in eradicating ISIS from the Middle East, most especially Syria and Iraq.

Is it “Radical Islam?”

A statement by Marco Rubio in the aftermath of the Paris attacks — that “radical Islam” was the enemy, more than ISIS in particular — forced the Democratic candidates to confront a touchy issue: are violent interpretations¬†of Islam itself the problem? Or is there a more complex interplay of violence, geopolitical struggle, and economic hardship at play? Each candidate declined for the most part to characterize the United States’ enemy as radical Islam itself, noted, most likely, by voters looking for leadership out from under the threat of terrorism.

Sanders on Eisenhower

In the biggest applause line of the night, Bernie Sanders was asked how much he would tax the highest income earners in America — creating a new top tax bracket and taxing it proportionally are a central point of his campaign. He, again, evaded the question, failing to give a concrete number for either the tax bracket’s cut-off, or the rate at which people in the bracket would be taxed. But, he said, it would certainly be lower than the 90 percent rate in place under Dwight D. Eisenhower, a beloved conservative historical figure associated with the prosperity of the post-WWII period.

O’Malley on Immigration

In the debate on border security and comprehensive immigration reform, it’s often looked over that immigration, legal and illegal, from Mexico into the United States, has dramatically slowed over the past decade, and there is hardly any movement over the border today. In pointing this out, Martin O’Malley sought to reframe the immigration debate on how to best integrate, legally and culturally, those undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Included in this highlight: Donald Trump the “carnival barker.”

Sanders and Clinton on Wall Street Donations

It’s no secret that Hillary Clinton’s top donors are large Wall Street banks and their employees, and when that came up on Saturday night, she justified their role in her campaign by recalling her efforts to rebuild the financial district after the attacks on September 11th. Bernie Sanders struck back, saying that the promises implicit in campaign donations on the magnitude that Clinton received would prevent her from actively regulating large banks.