The Dems’ debate: Sanders comes on strong, but misses an opportunity

With the Democratic presidential race tightening, I decided to check out the candidates’ debate tonight. I stuck with it for an hour and a half. Here are my observations:

First, Hillary Clinton turned in another strong performance. Republicans who think the GOP nominee won’t have his (or her) hands full should think again.

Second, unlike in the first debate (the only other one I’ve watched), Bernie Sanders was also strong. He did a better job defending himself on gun control, although this is still a weakness for him — a D-minus NRA rating not being low enough for most Dems. On the other big issues — health care, “black lives matter,” climate change, and Wall Street/the banks — Sanders was very strong if one considers things from the Democrats’ perspective.

Third, Sanders was particularly powerful on Wall Street and the banks. He hammered Clinton for taking $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and wondered how any candidate can reform Wall Street while receiving this kind of financial support from its denizens.

Fourth, the best Clinton could do in response was to point out that Sanders once criticized Barack Obama for accepting contributions from Wall Street. This wasn’t the only time that Clinton used President Obama as her “get out of jail” card (pun intended). Presumably, she figures that any attack on her that also applies to Obama will be discounted by the African-American voters she’s counting on to pull her through to the nomination. We’ll see.

Fifth, speaking of jail, Clinton said (referring to Wall Street types) that “no individual too powerful to jail.” Famous last words?

Sixth, the debate between Clinton and Sanders on health care was too close to call (at least by me, since I don’t know where Democratic voters stand on the issue). Sanders wants universal health care coverage and points out that Obamacare leaves 29 million Americans uninsured. Clinton says that universal coverage is her goal too, but doesn’t want another contentious debate, and thus prefers to make Obamacare better. Again, she played the Obama card, emphasizing what is great accomplishment Obamacare is.

Seventh, as I say, I don’t know how this debate over health sounds to the average Democrat. However, for many of all political persuasions, it may be sobering to hear that with all of the distortions and other problems Obamacare has produced, we still have 29 million uninsured Americans. That’s 10 percent of the population, no?

Eighth, the foreign policy segment of the debate produced little disagreement, and I think Sanders missed several opportunities to attack Clinton. At one point, the Vermont Senator was asked whether Clinton’s policies as Secretary of State created a vacuum in Syria. Sanders said they didn’t; the vacuum was created by the Iraq war.

I was certain he would point out that Clinton voted for that war, but he didn’t. Sanders could also have pointed out that Assad, whom Clinton attacked during the debate as a butcher, was once well-regarded by Clinton. Again, Sanders didn’t.

Ninth, Clinton took some positions that might not play well in the general election. Obamacare may be problematic against a Republican candidate who can sell an alternative (not just repeal).

Clinton came down very hard on the police. I assume she felt she had to, given her reliance on the African-American vote, but I doubt that most Americans share her view or her sympathy for “Black Lives Matter.” Clinton also strongly defended the Iran deal, which I think remains unpopular.

Tenth, the NBC moderators, especially Andrea Mitchell, went easier on Clinton than on Sanders and Martin O’Malley. The first issue-specific question of the debate was about Sanders’ past position on gun manufacturer liability — his main weakness as far as Democrats are concerned. Later, he was accused of flip-flopping on taxes for the middle class and chided for releasing a new plan on taxes (I think) just a few hours before the debate.

O’Malley was asked whether his law and order policies as mayor of Baltimore (years ago) are responsible for the recent problems the city has experienced.

Meanwhile Clinton, who is vulnerable to tough questions on so many fronts, was not asked anything that might have made her play defense until almost three-quarters of the debate had passed (and most viewers probably had tuned out). At that point, she was asked about her Russian reset. She claimed it was a success until Putin spoiled things by coming back to power in 2011. I kid you not.

To conclude, Clinton debated well but I don’t think Sanders will be derailed like he was by the first debate. Those inclined to view Sanders favorably are likely to be impressed by what they saw tonight.