Saturday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire provided stark contrast to the Republican “fear and loathing in Las Vegas” imbroglio last Tuesday. Republicans dished out bombast and bluster, while the three Democratic candidates offered policy and purpose, reminding Americans that we are strengthened when we abide by our values rather than trample them in panic.
Sadly, far fewer voters watched the Democratic debate than the Republican invective. This failure was the perverse design of Democratic National Committee head Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.). As she must have known, scheduling a debate on the Saturday night before Christmas across from an NFL game would discourage viewers, not attract them. Democrats drew a little over 8 million viewers; Republicans an estimated 18 million. Wasserman Schultz has scheduled a limited number of debates at obscure times — a disservice to the country and to Democratic voters — in what appears to be an effort to protect the front-runner, former s ecretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Wasserman Schultz compounded this disgrace last week by going nuclear over a breach of Clinton voter data by some staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), cutting the Sanders campaign off from access to its own lists. Sanders had to file suit to regain access. Wasserman Schultz would do the party and the country a great service if she resigned
and formally joined the Clinton campaign. That may be the only course of action that would keep the young activists whom Sanders has inspired from concluding in disgust that the p arty apparatus was rigging the rules to favor Clinton.
The data dust-up framed the first question that ABC’s moderators posed, an abject display of how our corporate media lunges for scandal over substance. Few outside the Beltway understand or care about the alleged breach. And no one thinks that it reflects on the character of Sanders, who demonstrated once more in the debate that, if anything, he is too much a gentleman for the Clintons, for whom politics is a contact sport.
Terrorism and the Islamic State took precedence in the debate. In fact, the foreign policy portion of the debate featured no question on climate, even after the historic Paris conference, and no questions on China or Russia, the crises that threaten the European Union, or the slowing global economy, which may well threaten our faltering “recovery.” Chasing the headlines, our corporate media feed our fears rather than offering context or balance.
Despite this, a serious debate about U.S. foreign policy managed to break out. Sanders challenged the bipartisan assumption that the United States should police the world, questioning Clinton’s predilection for regime change. Clinton, in contrast, argued that “if the United States does not lead, there is not another leader. There is a vacuum.” She insists that we have to not only take on the Islamic State but also dislodge Syrian P resident Bashar al-Assad and “go after everything from Northern Africa to South Asia and beyond.” Sanders’s reply was clear: “Of course the United States must lead. But the United States is not the policeman of the world. The United States must not be involved in perpetual warfare in the Middle East.”
The conventional wisdom is that Clinton benefits as voters grow more concerned about national security and terrorism. She is the most experienced of all the candidates. But as we have seen on domestic issues, experience is a mixed blessing when fundamental judgments have been wrong and counterproductive. As Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley noted, Clinton’s support for regime change has proved consistently costly. She supported George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, a debacle that destabilized the entire region. She championed not simply humanitarian intervention in Libya, but also removing Moammar Gadd afi. Now Libya is racked by violence, with the Islamic State taking advantage of the chaos to build a base there. And there is no sign she has learned from these disasters. Instead, she has purposefully advertised herself as more hawkish and interventionist than President Obama.
The difference in worldview is expressed in conflicting strategies about the Islamic State. Sanders calls for focusing on the Islamic State, which is attacking us, rather than Syria’s Assad, who is not. He favors forging a grand coalition — including Russia — to take out the Islamic State. He paid tribute to Jordan’s King Abdullah II for asserting that because this is a fight for the soul of Islam, Muslims should lead the effort on the ground.
Clinton agrees that Arab forces should lead the ground war but insists that we take on both Assad and the Islamic State, mortal enemies of each other, at the same time. She rejects a grand coalition with Russia against the Islamic State. Instead, she proposes creating a “no- fly zone” in Syria enforced against the planes of that sovereign nation and of its ally, Russia. She doesn’t explain what gives the United States legal authority for the “no- fly zone” but insists it will give us “leverage” with the Russians and will be “de-conflicted” and somehow accepted by them. More likely, her policy would subvert the peace process now underway after a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote, shepherded by her successor as secretary of state, John F. Kerry.
The constraints of the debate formats allow only for opening the question, not pursuing it, but the issue has now been joined. And the establishment’s assumption that Clinton’s experience will carry the day might not hold. Americans are both nervous and war- weary. They are looking for a sensible way forward. Sanders offers a targeted partnership against the Islamic State and a less interventionist policy generally. Clinton promises to redouble our efforts in these conflicts and sustain our “forward position” from the Baltics to the South China Sea. A long- overdue debate has been opened. Let us hope that the media give it as much attention as they do to the next ersatz Beltway scandal.
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