John Dickerson, Nancy Cordes, Kevin Cooney, and Kathie Obradovich
The second Democratic presidential debate occurred on November 14, 2015 at Drake University in Des Moine, Iowa. By a cruel twist of fate, it was held in the shadow of tragedy; the day before, the world had reeled as over 120 innocent people were murdered in Paris, France, in a series of coordinated terrorist attacks for which ISIS quickly claimed credit. Though the decision was made to go ahead with the debate, it was impossible to ignore the impact of the attacks in France, and the news team at CBS – the network hosting the event – reworked the evening's planned lines of questioning to include a greater focus on terrorism.
CBS News Journalist John Dickerson moderated the debate, doing so alone because he was managing only three candidates at the small event: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator from Vermont Bernard Sanders, and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley. Nevertheless, though Dickerson was the sole moderator, contributions in the form of questions for the candidates were made by fellow journalists Nancy Cordes and Kevin Cooney, and political columnist Nancy Obradovich.
Leading up to the event, polls showed that Clinton was continuing to dominate the Democratic primary, enjoying a powerful lead over nearest challenger Bernard Sanders, who consistently trailed her by at least 20 points. O'Malley was bringing up a distant rear, according to the polls, scoring in the single digits. Prior to this, Clinton's poll numbers had been stunned by her ongoing e-mail and Benghazi scandals, but now that she had famously endured an 11-hour questioning session by congress on the latter issue, her support appeared to be coalescing again.
As expected, the evening's discussions strongly favored foreign policy in relation to terrorism and the Middle East, and each of the three candidates devoted part of their opening statement to expressing condolences to the people of France over the recent attacks. O'Malley was first to explicitly reject the idea that the United States was at war with the Muslim faith as a whole, which he called “a great world religion”, while Clinton was reluctant even to use the term “radical Islam”. The issue of the Syrian civil war and the refugees it had produced was raised, specifically the proposal of allowing some 65,000 such people to take shelter in the United States. All of the candidates were sympathetic to this idea, generally with the caveat that the refugees be carefully screened to ensure they had no ill intent once inside the country.
The evening was largely amicable, almost jarringly so in comparison to the harsh and aggressive criticisms between candidates that often characterized the Republican debates up to this point. Nevertheless, tonight's contenders definitely traded polite blows. Sanders discussed the aged issue of Clinton's vote while a Senator to support then-President George W Bush's invasion of Iraq, and said that the war had destabilized the Middle East and been largely responsible for bringing about the ISIS group. Clinton responded that Islamic terrorism had existed well before the war in Iraq, though she did repeat statements she had made over the years that she now regarded her decision to vote for that war to have been a mistake.
Moving on from foreign policy and war, economic issues were discussed tonight. When a question on taxes came up, all three candidates voiced their support for higher taxation on the wealthy. On this point, Sanders, who has been criticized for speaking favorably of the tax policies of President Dwight Eisenhower, reiterated (as he had previously had need to say when asked) that while he still had not calculated an exact rate, he would not be in favor of taxing the rich at the mentioned President's 90%, stating “I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower” to laughter and applause from the audience.
All three candidates declared that the federal minimum wage should be raised. Often fond of discussing income and wealth inequality in the United States, Sanders spoke of the injustice of the current hourly $7.25 wage floor, and said that it must be brought over a number of years to $15. O'Malley agreed with this figure. Concerned over the economic impact of the move, Clinton recommended a more modest increase to $12 for the federal minimum wage, while being clear that individual markets – which may have greater costs of living – would be free to legislate higher rates.
One particularly pointed question tonight saw moderator John Dickerson pointing out Clinton's history of receiving generous campaign donations from wealthy Wall Street investors; the same class of people upon whose economically dangerous excesses she often claims she will aggressively crack down as president. Dickerson then asked how she could be trusted to do this when she has been the beneficiary of such largess. Her response was that her intentions are obviously understood by the people on Wall Street, who she says have often formed super PACs to advertise against her campaigns. She also pointed out that despite any Wall Street donations she may have received, she has a solid record of supporting legislation in the Senate to limit executive pay in corporations. Dickerson chose to specifically ask Clinton's chief rival Sanders for his assessment of this answer, to which the Senator from Vermont tersely replied “not good enough”, and insisted on knowing why Clinton has received so much support from the wealthy if she is not in fact their friend. He suggested that unless these people are improbably naive, they “knew what they were getting” when they contributed, to which Clinton seemed to take offense, accusing Sanders of impugning her integrity. She spoke of the friendship she had enjoyed over the years with the people of New York, particularly in regards to her service to that city and state following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This remark earned Clinton some popular criticism; one live comment by an upset Twitter user, that this was the first time she had heard 9/11 used to defend an economic political position, was later read back to Clinton by Dickerson. Clinton held to her statement.
The brief spat was forgotten by the time a separate question reminded Sanders of a statement he had made during the first Democratic debate in defense of his rival's e-mail scandal, followed by an inquiry as to why he had later said that questions about Clinton's allegedly improper use of her personal server were valid. Sanders reiterated what he said at the first event, declaring that he was still “sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails”, causing Clinton to smile broadly and “completely agree” when asked by Dickerson for a response.
Health care, race relations and the interaction of law enforcement with ethnic minorities, and gun control were also raised during the debate. The evening concluded with closing statements from each candidate, including an inspirational message from O'Malley that America must move forward rather than look to the people and policies of the past. Sanders again spoke of his outrage over income inequality and the absence of health care as a guaranteed right in the United States – the only major country, he said, that fails to make such a promise to its citizens. As for Clinton, she spoke of the duties and responsibilities of the office she was seeking, and drew applause from the audience for her choice of words. She said that a president must “do all that she can do” for the people of the United States.