Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the only candidate that currently has a chance of successful challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and has had a meteoric rise from unknown Senator to leading all polls in the New Hampshire Primary and in some polls for the Iowa Caucus. His debate presence was the first opportunity that many people ever saw Sanders and the first opportunity for even more people to hear the Senator’s policy positions.
His opening statement was him setting down a marker as it was in the same vein of his campaign rally speeches; he spoke about Citizens United, climate change, incarceration, and youth unemployment. Irrespective of whether or not you agree with his policies, it is undeniable that his style of debating was markedly different from the other candidates and was very effective.
Anderson Cooper’s first question to the Vermont Senator was about electability, specifically about his self-identification as a ‘democratic socialist’, to which Sanders responded “we’re going to win by explaining what democratic socialism is” before affirming his support for paid family leave and healthcare as a right. When Cooper followed up with a question asking whether he supported capitalism, Sanders assassinated cronyism through a barrage of, correct, statistics and corruption which resulted, unsurprisingly, in the first big round of applause of the night.
Sanders was then asked about guns, which is the only issue where he is not good enough for the left-wing of the Democratic Party. Sanders said that he supported instant background checks, the closing of gun show loopholes, the banning of assault weapons, and that gun manufacturers shouldn’t be shielded from regulations. When Clinton challenged his positions on guns Sanders didn’t respond well. He said that it something to do with representing a rural state and then repeated his positions; this is not good enough. Representing a rural state is not a good enough argument because if you’re running for the President of the United States you have to be concerned with both rural and urbanised states.
On foreign policy Sanders disagreed with Clinton that there should be a no-fly-zone over Syria and said that he doesn’t support ground troops in Syria because “as Chairman of the Senate Veteran Committee I learned a very powerful lesson about the cost of war”. when Clinton’s Iraq War vote was brought up Sanders said that he had “seen the same evidence from Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld about Iraq” but still voted against the war. When asked about Russia Sanders said that Putin is trying to save-face from the country’s economic problems stemming the annexation of Crimea.
Cooper then brought up Sanders’ decision to be a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War which Sanders handled perfectly: “I disagreed with the policy of going to war and not with those who chose to serve”, and had prefixed this statement by paying tribute to Jim Webb’s service in Vietnam. On national security threats, Sanders was unique as he said that the main national security threat was climate change and he didn’t mention other things like ISIS or Iran as O’Malley did.
The Vermont Senator answered a question about race relations by agreeing with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and pointed out that the African-American community knows about the institutional racism that exists. His response wasn’t especially detailed but he did specify that he wants to reform the criminal justice system which he characterised as “broken”.
Regarding the economy Sanders said that he supported pay equity for women, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, rebuild the US’ infrastructure, end disastrous trade policies and making public colleges tuition free by means of a tax on Wall Street speculation. On banking reform he railed against the Clinton Administration, who enabled banks to increase in size because of the then president’s support for the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and came out with the line of the night: “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress”. Later in the evening he called the lack of paid family leave “an international embarrassment” and called out the Republican Party for only talking about tax cuts for millionaires.
On immigration Sanders was challenged on his vote against the 2007 Immigration Bill and rebuked Cooper effectively by pointing out that some of the provisions in the bill were described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “semi-slavery”. He went on to say that he supports comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship.
On civil liberties Sanders boasted of his opposition to the Patriot Act and that he would shut down the NSA’s current spying programme, which was met with applause from the audience. In regards to Edward Snowden the Vermont Senator said that he had “educated the American people on the erosion of their civil liberties and that should be considered before he’s charged”, which was not really giving a position but was supportive enough of Snowden to keep the liberal parts of the Democratic Party interested in his candidacy.
Sanders was also questioned about the nature of his campaign. He said that he cannot do anything without a political revolution that says that the government of the United States is for all of the American people and not just for millionaires; he characterised such a revolution as improving the political consciousness of people in order to take on big money interests. The Senator went on to point out that he was the only political candidate, who is not a billionaire, to raise substantial amounts of money without a Super-PAC. He went on to say that the GOP were obstructionists, that the “only way to get things done is to get millions of people to come together”, and that the enemies he is most proud of to have made were Wall Street and health insurance companies.
On the environment, after previously identifying the greatest national security threat as climate change, Sanders publicly announced that unless campaign finance reform took place nothing would happen as the the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party who deny the reality of climate change.
Sanders’ final comments were regarding marijuana and said that if he was voting on whether to legalise marijuana by ballot initiative he would vote for legalisation on the grounds that people’s lives are destroyed because they are locked up for possession and use. He concluded his remarks by criticising the American criminal justice system for jailing people for smoking weed but allows CEOs on Wall Street to go free; it shouldn’t be surprising that this was applauded rather vigorously.
In conclusion Sanders performance wasn’t as polished as O’Malley or Clinton but part of the reason people like Sanders is that he isn’t a polished or slippery politician. He was successful in introducing himself to millions of people who had never heard his policy positions before and, as a result of the debate, wouldn’t be surprised if his poll numbers across the country improved.