Last week, America got its first look at the debating chops of the Democratic candidates. While Governor Mike Huckabee ranted on Twitter, Bernie Sanders raved, and Lincoln Chafee finally opened his mouth. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the clear winner, while Senator Chafee and Governor Martin O’Malley fell short. Senator Sanders underwhelmed while Senator Jim Webb surpassed expectations.
As of early September, Chafee was polling at a whopping zero percent nationally. With those numbers, one would think he had little to lose. In Las Vegas, Chafee proved Americans wrong. The self-proclaimed “block of granite” hesitated, taking the low-hanging fruit — bashing Clinton’s support for the Iraq War. While a legitimate point, Chafee failed to offer any distinctive opinions on foreign affairs. Similarly bland and unimpressive was his promise “to end these wars.”
Given O’Malley’s dearth of talking time on foreign policy, there is little to be said for his performance, aside from the fact that his lack of foreign policy experience spoke for itself. Whether intentional or unfortunate, claiming that “Assad [invaded] Syria” is a grave error.
Expectations were especially high for Senator Sanders. With few clear foreign policy positions, Sanders needed the debate to clarify his viewpoints. This was a key moment for him, but his performance on the topic was mixed at best. Sanders failed to outline the conditions under which he would send the United States to war. Dodging the question, Sanders reiterated previous support for Afghanistan and Kosovo campaigns. While it’s a relief to be reminded of what he previously supported, deferring to these extreme examples simply isn’t enough. To add to this, Sanders advocated that climate change is the chief national security threat. Whether or not it is a serious issue, few experts would agree that it is more immediately pressing than, say, the rise of ISIS.
Only marginally less odd than Chafee is former Virginia senator Webb. In spite of his petulant complaints on speaking time, Webb distinguished himself on core policy issues. A most apt reflection of this success was his answer to the question on the greatest national security threat to the United States. Webb believes it is Chinese cyberterrorism and territorial expansion and aggression in the South China Sea. The former Virginia senator offered by far the most distinct and unique answer on this issue, especially considering how Chinese actions and aspirations seem to have taken a backseat, to a degree, to turmoil in the Middle East. Similarly insightful was Webb’s brief comment on that region, which he astutely pointed out is worse off post-Arab Spring. It’s an important reality to accept as any incoming administration will grapple with new realities on the ground. Unfortunately, Webb’s impressive performance will not hold much long-term weight, given his decision yesterday to drop out of the Democratic primary race.
It’s no that surprise Clinton emerged victorious in Las Vegas. While arguably targeted by the moderators, Hillary got lucky thanks to her largely weak competition. Staying on message, she projected leadership. All the while, she aptly communicated the massive experience gap: that she’s the leader with the plan and the know-how, who has been trusted time and time again to make major decisions. Clinton did exactly what was necessary, outperforming Sanders while maintaining confidence and calmness. However, citing the Obama administration’s “successes” is highly contentious at best, especially given Webb’s remarks on the Middle East and North Africa.
It’s no surprise that the path is clear for Secretary Clinton, barring Vice President Joe Biden’s entrance into the race. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that despite a strong showing in this debate, Clinton will have earned the nomination more so by lack of credible contestation than by victory.