On Friday, November 6, 2015, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow moderated the latest installment of the presidential candidates’ debates, the “First in the South” Democratic Forum, hosted by Winthrop University, in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The forum was not a debate, Maddow told viewers, but was a series of one-on-one interviews of the candidates by Maddow, who generated many of the questions herself. The candidates did not, therefore, engage in any direct conversation or exchange, and the forum differed sharply from the most recent Republican installment, the CNBC debate at the University of Colorado. Maddow’s questioning concentrated on serious questions, but also included some lighter questioning to create a friendly atmosphere (including a “meet the young candidate” segment for each candidate, giving them a chance to talk about their youth and their career). The bulk of the interviews, however, saw Maddow pushing the candidates to justify both their views and their candidacy.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was up first. After evading a question about the Democratic Party’s traditional weakness in the South (since the 1970s), the conversation turned to climate change. O’Malley noted that, “We’re the party that believes in science…,” and he talked about the problem as more of a “challenge and opportunity,” denying the traditional view of environmental reform as potentially job-killing. Instead, O’Malley articulated a vision of energy reform as a job creation opportunity, talked about his Clean Energy Jobs Corps proposal, and advocated cities as the best area in which to pursue green energy. O’Malley shrugged aside Maddow’s suggestion that at least some states might lose both jobs and money were his proposal to turn the energy grid completely green by 2050 to be enacted.
Discussing the Black Lives Matter movement, O’Malley asserted that his governorship reduced incarceration and recidivism rates, cleaned the streets of Maryland of drugs, and reduced crime rates, all effects beneficial to African Americans. O’Malley sees the elimination of for-profit prisons as the next step to reduce both prison populations and the legal system’s incarceration mentality.
On foreign affairs, O’Malley sees both the continuing use of the Guantanamo detention facility and the “American boots on the ground” approach to the Middle East as the best “recruiting tools” for ISIL and Al Qaeda, generating by their very existence entire new ranks of extremist, anti-American fighters. The detention of people without due process, O’Malley asserted, was simply “contrary to our principles as a people.”
Maddow’s interview with O’Malley finished with a question about his campaign, still polling in the low single-digits, and a very distant third of the three remaining “viable” Democratic candidates. O’Malley took the moment to attack Sanders as a socialist (unlike himself as a “lifelong Democrat”), and Clinton for being late to the game on numerous issues such as Keystone and gay marriage. O’Malley noted that in races to the governorship, he had also suffered from low polling early on, and that he liked a “tough fight.”
Next up was Bernie Sanders, the formerly independent Senator from Vermont, arguing that his message resonates for all poor and working people, and that despite representing a state that’s 95% white, his civil rights record is unimpeachably progressive. While idealistic, his responses to Maddow’s questions on marketing his Democratic candidacy to southern and black voters spoke less to the realities of lower-class suspicions toward the Democratic Party in the South. Similarly, his responses to her questions about involving the corporations in the reform of the economy and tax structure (especially by moving corporate investment into actual job creation rather than pure wealth concentration) were vague, and centered simply around taxes, suggesting that a Sanders administration might be dangerously confrontational to those powers capable of generating new jobs.
Sanders continued to answer vaguely on other issues, such as Middle East policy. He insisted that the “boots on the ground” needed to be regional rather than American, or that American involvement could take place through a venue of greater international involvement, especially by European powers such as Great Britain, France, and Germany. Sanders refused to consider a unilateral American effort, and seemed to falter at Maddow’s questioning about European and regional reluctance to engage. To be fair, O’Malley’s answers were similarly idealistic and vague, and yet Maddow had not pinned O’Malley into a corner on the issue to the same degree that she did with Sanders.
Sanders pushed his self-image as a candidate for reasonable gun control, arguing that his representation of a rural state gave him a special appreciation of second amendment rights, but that (despite voting against legislation such as the Brady Bill) he also had worked to improve and increase background checks, and to ban assault weapons.
Finally, on the subject of voting rights, Sanders became heated, calling the Republicans “…political cowards, and if they can’t face a free election, then they should get another job.” Sanders saw the loss of Democratic vitality in the South as largely due to defeats on the issue in those states. He saw greater and effective political change as achievable through a renewed fight on that front. “We need to greatly expand voter turnout… We need a political revolution.”
Hillary Rodham Clinton completed the evening, coming out on stage to an explosion of applause. However, the many African American members of the audience looked less than convinced. Maddow’s first serious question asked Clinton about African American reactions to a Democratic stage with only white players, and whether African Americans should feel “left behind” by that reality. Clinton bypassed the question to argue for a “New New Deal,” which would help not only African Americans, but middle-class white voters as well (clearly an answer to speak more to that latter, larger demographic, but which for that very reason cannot be encouraging to the former). Clinton also answered weakly to Maddow’s questioning about Wall Street, repeating her mantra of telling Wall Street to “stop it,” and arguing merely that she is on record as fighting to level the playing field, and that the economy works too much for those at the very top, and too little for everyone else.
Clinton redirected a question about having police in school classrooms (referencing the recent ugly incident in Richland County, South Carolina), to the larger issue of economic change, with over half of students now on lunch programs, a key metric for gauging childhood and family poverty rates. Clinton condemned the school system’s vastly greater expulsion and suspension rates for African-American students in particular.
On foreign affairs, Clinton waved off Maddow’s suggestion that she is more “hawkish” and aggressive than her Democratic competitors. She argued that as Secretary of State, she had pursued diplomatic solutions and saw diplomacy succeed in creating international progress, especially with respect to Iran (with Clinton citing her work in creating a sanction environment that pushed Iran into a peaceful agreement with the West).
Maddow asked few specific questions of any candidate on economic policy and jobs creation, although the candidates were able to get in some vague ideas on the subject. Similarly the three Democratic candidates are all reluctant to use force in the Middle East, and yet they see the area as a key political arena; the forum demonstrated little in the way of clear thinking about alternatives. Another problem area for both parties, the demographics of their own base constituencies, shows an ironic contrast between the Republican Party, fronting both black and Hispanic candidates, and the all-white Democratic candidate pool. With both parties fighting for minority votes, such voters will have to decide whether they are better served by white candidates with more inclusive policies, or by minority candidates breaking key racial barriers but offering little else in the way of overall social inclusion.
In any case, the Forum provided the audience with a stark contrast to the CNBC debate, being more substantial (but still with glaring weaknesses on the issues), less inherently confrontational, less dramatic, and more didactic. The Democratic Party’s candidates therefore are better served by this environment than by the more confrontational atmosphere at Denver, and those viewers considering the Democratic candidates now have better information with which to consider their options as the political fight moves on to the next round.