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The event featured, in order of introduction, former Rhodes Island governor Lincoln Chafee, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, Independent senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders, and former Virginia senator Jim Webb.
Compared to the republican debate that took place on September 16, also on CNN, the stage exuded a convivial atmosphere. Like a family gathering, back-and-forths remained cordial, and colloquialisms were common. Quips flew across the stage and comments were sometimes received with mirth, not only from the crowd, but also from the other candidates. Clinton’s distinctive laugh was heard repeatedly.
At one point, Sanders lauded his “good friend Jim Webb” for his service to the nation. He alluded to the contrast between Webb fighting in Vietnam and Sanders protesting it at home, and how it did not stop the two from working on a joint effort to provide healthcare to veterans while Sanders was Chairman of the Veterans Committee.
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At a later point, laughs resonated when Sanders told Clinton that the American people is “sick and tired of hearing about your damn email,” referring to Clinton’s email controversy. His frustration at the irony nevertheless echoed with the crowd. His comment “enough with the emails, let’s talk about the real issues” received the most sustained applause.
Webb tried to pursue the email question nonetheless, and Clinton, when asked whether she would like to respond, simply said “no.”
On each extremity of the stage, Chaffee and Webb received little attention. Present in the wide shots, they were largely kept out of the picture otherwise. Webb expressed his frustration at having to stand there quietly. Disillusioned, he asked whether he, too, could take part in the debate. He had to repeat his concern to the host, Anderson Cooper, later on.
Webb, the only Democratic candidate to have spent most of his career out of politics, has, since he joined the race, been stifled by minimal coverage. Yet, on many issues, his positions differ from the other candidates’.
While Sanders and Chafee boasted their ratings by the National Rifle Association of D- and F respectively, Webb kept his A hidden until Cooper brought it up. He also opposes affirmative action, which he qualifies as “state-sponsored racism.” (He clarified his position to say that, while he supports its original goal to provide equal opportunity to African-Americans, the current implementation undermines poor white communities.) He was also the only one to mention the threats of cyber security.
But Webb is seldom worried about expressing different opinions. In 2008, he risked what advisors called a “political suicide” by pushing for criminal justice system reform before it had become mainstream, taking the early shots of skepticism. The other candidates, even if they generally agreed among themselves, still had their reserves towards each other’s contentions.
Clinton accused Sanders of not being tough enough on gun control. She mentioned that the Brady bill, which imposes a five-day mandatory waiting period prior to purchasing a gun, and which the senator voted against on five occasions, has prevented two million sales since its implementations.
When the topic of Wall Street came up, it was Sanders’ turn to curl his lip at Clinton. O’Malley called it a “fundamental difference” between the candidates. In particular, he mentioned Clinton’s opposition to the Glass-Steagall banking act. Chafee, who voted to repeal the act in 1999, showed utter cluelessness when he admitted to having cast the vote because of inexperience. The repeal of the act is widely believed to have been a cause of the 2008 financial crisis.
Besides obvious policy considerations, one of the important question of election is how the candidates will avoid, or deal with, the “Obama problem,” the likelihood of the right side of the aisle in congress to systematically denigrate any effort by a Democratic president.
Cooper asked of each candidate how their presidency would differ from a third-term-Obama—as if the idea didn’t hold some appeal to the voter base. Clinton said that, in her case, the answer was “very clear.” Sanders called for a “political revolution.” Webb remained pragmatic. In spite of his “great deal of affection for Sanders,” he said, “Bernie, I don’t think the revolution is coming.” Webb, the quaint Democrat who has led successful bipartisan efforts in the past, and whose ideas already resonate with the republican base, may be the most at ease with a republican-dominated Congress.