The First Debate After the Paris Attacks Was Bad

Saturday's Democratic debate brought us fumbled responses on ISIS, rehashed zingers and gratuitous 9/11 references

The second Democratic debate focused largely on terrorism and foreign affairs. Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty

Even before Hillary Clinton dropped the most cynical line of the Democratic debate cycle, it was not a great debate. A human troll doll didn't talk about menses. A neurosurgeon who sounds like his debate prep consists of gluing a nitrous oxide mask to his face didn't say that the U.S. special forces are in the Bible, and Jeb Bush didn't accidentally rack himself in the junk with a podium.

Saturday night's second Democratic debate, in Des Moines, wasn't great on its own terms, either. All three candidates spent the first half hour sounding like students who dedicated the week to cramming for one exam, only to find that the syllabus changed right before the midterm. Which, essentially, is what happened, when a coordinated ISIS attack in Paris killed more than 120 people and demanded that we solve Islamic terrorism right now. 

Each candidate fumbled his or her way through a proposed response to ISIS. Bernie Sanders mentioned the attacks in Paris for just a pair of sentences in his opening statement, then transitioned baldly to his stump appeal. He later called for Arab states to take a more active role in combating ISIS in a "war for the soul of Islam," and came about as close as an American politician can come to saying, "Saudi Arabia needs to stop trying to deflect threats to its stratified, cosmopolitan power structure by paying go-away money to every murderous band of dead-end shitkickers who rattle an AK magazine homeward at them." 

Hillary Clinton distanced herself from the Obama doctrine by stating that "ISIS cannot be contained, it must be defeated," as she must, and couldn't bring herself to commit to what terms we should use to describe ISIS. Lastly, despite a moving moment when he recalled a supporter asking him not to refer to her son as merely a pair of boots on the ground, Martin O'Malley said this was a 21st century war that called for 21st century tactics, although he rightly praised Muslim Americans as our first line of defense in terms of gathering human intelligence against domestic Islamic terror.

In basic terms, each candidate said that ISIS presented problems that call for solutions, which requires that we do things. If elected, things will be done, and none too soon, you can bet on it. These are people who can get things done, and you will begin to see things immediately. It was a stark contrast to the Republican Party debates, which have the animal subtlety of a teen in sweatpants tent-pitching a yearning boner at a topless woman on an album cover. While the Republicans' plans for ISIS are no more practically or programmatically enumerated, they are at least clear. They are the words EXTERMINATE THE BRUTES scrawled across the page in grease pencil and a fevered hand. You know where you stand with that attitude: behind a rifle stock, firing at anything with a keffiyeh or a hijab on it.

There were zingers, of course — maybe not pre-written and polished zingers like the ones the Romney campaign bragged about nearly four years ago, but applause happened. O'Malley reused an earlier line, referring to "that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump." Bernie and Hillary again enjoyed an alley-oop over his being sick of hearing about her emails. Probably the most purely funny moment of the night came when Sanders was called on to explain what his tax plan would be and he replied, "We haven't come up with an exact number yet, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower. Which was 90 percent. I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower." It was a nice reminder that conservatism has never really squared away the dissonance between their holding up the 1950s as a golden age of American prosperity with a highest marginal tax rate nearly triple what it is today.

The rest of the debate felt like a lot of missed opportunities or familiar vexations. Sanders' Eisenhower line sprang from moderator John Dickerson asking him how he planned to pay for all his programs, which only reminds one that the Republican debates have been a mostly unchallenged economic fantasia of slashing over $10 trillion from the next decade's tax revenues, instigating global aggression against nearly two billion people and claiming that everything comes out deficit-neutral. 

Bernie Sanders again tied himself into unnecessary knots on his legislative history on gun control, despite it being an issue on which Democratic voters would give him a mulligan if he just said, "I fucked up." Martin O'Malley seemed the most thrown by the change in debate structure, using the wrong proper nouns and terms on a handful of occasions, then admitting toward the end of the debate that the demands of the presidency are so unique that nobody can claim to be adequately prepared for them. The admission is, of course, absolutely reasonable and true, but in a process of codified polite fictions like a presidential debate, it fell flat compared to Hillary Clinton talking about the decision to order the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

The most tone-deaf line of the night belonged to Hillary Clinton, after she was targeted for her history of Wall Street support. Sanders asked, "Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been... [her] major campaign contributor? Maybe they're dumb, they don't know what they're going to get, but I don't think so." It was Sanders' who are we fucking kidding, here? moment, and it points to, again, the problem at the heart of Hillary's pitch on Wall Street reform. Over the course of her career, four of her top five donors have been Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley. Someone has to be the moron, and if it's not the rich guys whose jobs are buying things that advance their self-interest, then it's the people at home buying a new regulatory zeal from someone who's never much evinced an inclination toward it before.

Clinton's response took the form of a vaporous appeal to identity politics, followed by an invocation of September 11 crass enough to make Rudy Giuliani's cheeks redden in either shame or envy. Addressing Sanders' comments above, as well as the number of small donors to his campaign, Clinton said:

"You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small, and I'm very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent... I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country."

This rancid bucket of word scrofula does a lot of coldly profitable handwaving and at best only creates more questions than it answers. Clinton's disclosure forms reveal reams of high-dollar Wall Street contributors, so what does a majority of women donors signify that obviates the former in any material way? Would significant Wall Street backing disappear as an issue for a gay candidate who said, "60 percent of my donors are gay"? Does all of Cory Booker's "love money" from hedge fund ghouls get less problematic if he hits a threshold of black donors?

And, after 14 years of every opportunist creep in a blue suit and red tie exhuming the corpses of the World Trade Center dead to festoon themselves with sanctified victimhood, it's amazing that there are still new ways to be forced to ask the question What the fuck does September 11 have to do with any of this shit, asshole? Would Hillary Clinton become a card-carrying Communist if the CPUSA headquarters had been hit by a plane? Would her donor lists be full of members of Supertramp, Fairport Convention and Oingo Boingo if Al Qaeda had attacked the A&M Records building? What possible causal relationship exists here? And how does attending to Wall Street's fortunes rebuke the terrorists? By those lights, Wall Street should have been completely deregulated just so those guys could get back on their feet and start signing donor checks even faster. Suck on that, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

And despite flogging the nation's honored dead for the billionth beshitted time this century, Hillary Clinton won the debate handily. Martin O'Malley and those related to and paid by Martin O'Malley will disagree. And Bernie Sanders supporters, who don't seem to realize that online polls are scientific garbage and a measure of, at best, the effectiveness of Reddit, will insist that their candidate cleaned up. Meanwhile, the media, which tends to worry about whether a member of its tribe looked good, will tell you that John Dickerson was the clear winner, just in case your biggest concern coming away from a debate on national and foreign policy issues was the dumbest distinction imaginable.

It's a long slog between here and November 2016, but the good news is we know we can always take the low road.