If Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley could control the circumstances and terms of Saturday’s debate, the third of the Democratic primary, it would have been a very different evening. It’s easy to imagine an ideal Sanders debate: a focus on how inequality is destroying the middle class and why Sanders, unlike Clinton, is willing to stand-up to corporate plutocrats and Wall Street. Martin O’Malley’s perfect debate would be one where his expertise in progressive wonkery could shine, and he would emerge as a sleek, plausible alternative. But world events, the unfolding strangeness of the Republican field, and the sensation-loving mindset of the media all conspired to create a debate that allowed Hillary Clinton to dominate, highlighting the areas where she has the most experience and is most comfortable discussing. Unfortunately for both of Clinton’s rivals, the actual debate felt almost scripted to allow her to present her most persuasive self, the confident and experienced master of a broadly supported centrist foreign policy.
The foreign policy focus of the first half of the debate—the part that will get the highest ratings and linger longest in the memory—happened partially by happenstance. No one could have predicted that the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino would have happened when they did, and cast such a large shadow. But there’s also the fact that the Democratic debates aren’t taking place in a political vacuum: to a large degree the Democrats have let the Republicans set the terms of political argument, and are mainly counterpunching to the GOP. This is in large part because of the outsized personality of Donald Trump and the greater number of debates on the Republican side (combined with much more virulent language) simply dominate political discourse. Finally, the media itself plays a part, since questions about terrorism and war are much more attention grabbing than issues like inequality, taxation, and tuition.
Sanders was more comfortable talking about foreign policy than in the second debate, but he still suffers in part from a disconnect between his realist critique of Hillary’s foreign policy and his general profile as an idealistic socialist. Sanders’s approach to national security is fundamentally a nationalist and realist one. It’s the sort of argument one hears from the likes of George Kennan and Henry Kissinger. Strange as it may seem, Sanders’s major critique of Hillary came across as almost conservative: that her advocacy of regime change leads to destabilization. Sanders kept reminding the audience that (unlike Clinton) he voted against the Iraq war, which he blamed for the chaos now engulfing the Middle East. “I voted against the war in Iraq because I thought unilateral military action would not produce the results that were necessary and would lead to the kind of unraveling and instability that we saw in the Middle East,” Sanders said. The problem for Sanders is that this critique doesn’t fit neatly with his calls for a democratic socialism in America. After all, if democracy is the answer to America’s problems, isn’t it also something we should wish for the Syrians?
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, spoke in more traditional centrist liberal terms, advocating policies very similar to those already being carried out by President Obama, but with more vigor. In a tweet, Matt Bai of Yahoo News drew a sharp distinction between Sanders and Clinton: “Important exchange here: is the real enemy of world order repressive states, or is it the stateless threats they create? The answer matters.”
Clinton’s advantage is that the answer she provides—a dual focus on spreading liberty and counter-terrorism—is the one that has broad-based centrist appeal. Moreover, her years as Secretary of State give her a confidence in speaking of these matters that her rivals lack. As for Martin O’Malley, his wonkish attempts to interject himself into the debate—as in his suggestion that USAID be raised to a cabinet-level agency—merely made him look more desperate and out of place.
One striking fact about the argument between Sanders and Clinton was that both candidates were much more substantial and informed than the discussions of the same issues in recent Republican debates which have amounted to little more than competitive chest-thumping. The Republicans have made it clear that they plan to use national security and fears of terrorism to win back the White House next November. Perhaps one other advantage of tonight’s debate for Hillary Clinton is that it showed that she’s well armed for that fight.