Earl Ofari Hutchinson's take on the politics of the day
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The second Democratic presidential debate matters for two reasons. The first is simply a matter of time and logistics. There aren’t five Democratic presidential candidates scratching, and clawing for face time anymore. There isn’t a candidate repeatedly screaming that he was being ignored. With the field whittled down to three, there’s lots of time for the two Democratic presidential principals, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton to eyeball each other and tell just what exactly are the big differences between them on everything from income equality to Black Lives Matter to ISIS and Iran. It’s a chance for Sanders to prove that as he quipped he really doesn’t agree with Clinton on most policy issues.
The third contender still standing, Martin O’Malley, even has a chance to make the case that he’s different, better and more well versed on the issues, and if all goes well can add a point or two more to his single digit numbers in the polls. In any case, with lots of time to kill, the threesome will have plenty of opportunities to back up their claim that Republican rule means wreck and ruin for the country and how they’ll same America from that fate.
This won’t sway a committed Sanders or Clinton supporter to suddenly jump ship. In fact, the mountains of research on the relevance of debates show that most voters cling to their party affiliations, political beliefs, and personal likes and dislikes of candidates no matter what the candidates say on the issues. The mass of voters aren’t generally swayed by a candidates verbosity, good looks, or seeming erudition on the issues.
The other reason this debate, and the GOP debates for that matter, do make a difference has nothing to do with a candidate’s public telescoping of inflated promises and fudging facts and misstatements that politicians routinely make to get votes. It gives voters a chance to watch potential White House occupants think and even squirm on their feet on the tough questions. This is even more important given the marathon nature of presidential campaigns. In this case, the 2016 presidential election is still almost a year off. That's a comparative lifetime in the world of issues and practical problems such as a new Benghazi type attack, or a Paris style terror massacre, that demands an intense look at foreign policy concerns and decisions, another shoot up of a school or mall that demands a fresh reassessment of gun control laws, or a new oil supply disruption that demands a hard look at energy costs and policy.
Whoever ultimately winds up in the White House will have to scramble and rethink ways and means to deal with these issues. So just regurgitating a stock position on the issues that is always subject to change seems trite. Even in the best circumstances, most candidates simply do not have enough information on the never ending array of crucial issues, policies and programs that's part of their White House watch. Every president has found that grim political fact of life out and been on a hard learning curve from the instant he has put his first foot in the White House. January 2017 will be no different for the eventual presidential derby winner.
The Democratic debates are especially vital for Sanders. Clinton has massive and universal name recognition. He doesn’t. He will again be on full public display in the debate for only the second time to many voters. And even though many more voters won't be tuning in at this early stage of the game to watch and listen to him, they'll be fed enough bits and pieces of what he said to get at least some idea of what he thinks on some issues. It will also provide a measuring stick of whether he can shed the image of a narrow, partisan, and to some, wild eyed anti-capitalist, socialist ideologue.
This debate, as was and is the case with the GOP contenders, serve as an early weeding out process for the candidates who are so ill-informed, ignorant and light weight on the issues to render them clearly unfit for a serious White House bid. This happened in the 2012 GOP presidential debates with then Texas governor Rick Perry. He terribly embarrassed himself with an "ouch" moment by not being able to remember the third federal agency he had pledged to eliminate if elected president. He was soon finished as a viable candidate after that.
This and subsequent Democratic presidential debates will be watched and critically assessed if for nothing else because Clinton or Sanders will eventually emerge from the pack, and get the party nod to challenge the whomever the GOP serves up. This in itself will be a litmus test whether that candidate can actually go toe to toe with whatever candidate that might be in a general debate on the issues that will be much more sharply defined in 2016.
The Democratic presidential debate, like all debates, is top heavy on posture, vanity, allure, and style points. That in itself isn’t a bad thing as long as the issues that matter are sandwiched in between. This makes presidential debates not the terrible waste that many think.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is What to Make of Ben Carson (Amazon Kindle). He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network