The final Democratic debate of the year was one of the few remaining chances for Sen. Bernie Sanders and ex-Gov. Martin O'Malley to make a strong case against Hillary Clinton -- and both men passed on the opportunity. With less than 45 days until the Iowa Caucuses, Sanders and O'Malley must decide which they prefer -- winning applause or winning elections.
To win applause, you do what both men did at the debate: put forward proposals on domestic and foreign policy and politely point out disagreements with Clinton, the front-runner. But with polls showing Clinton enjoying a commanding lead in all the early states except New Hampshire (where she is a few points behind Sanders), the path to the Democratic nomination requires making an argument to voters that Clinton won't, can't or shouldn't win the general election next fall.
Neither Sanders nor O'Malley was willing to go that far.
"The greed of the billionaire class, the greed of Wall street is destroying this economy," Sanders said, pointing out that Clinton has a cozy relationship with Wall Street. But Clinton was ready. "I have more donations from students and teachers than I do from people associated with Wall Street," she responded, pointing out that only 3% of her donors work in banking and finance.
And for good measure, Clinton made sure to mention that two hedge fund billionaires are running ads in New Hampshire that attack her.
Sanders more or less let the matter drop there, but that won't convince millions of Democratic voters that Clinton might someday sell them out. That is the kind of accusation Sanders and O'Malley must make clearly and frequently if they want to displace her at the top of the polls. But neither man has done so, and should expect to remain 20-plus percentage points behind her.
There's no shortage of differences between the candidates. Sanders and O'Malley say the minimum wage should be raised to $15 per hour; Clinton wants to keep it lower. Sanders wants to make college tuition free on every campus; "I don't believe in free tuition for everybody," said Clinton.
On national security, Sanders and O'Malley both made a case -- rather timidly, considering what was at stake for them -- that Clinton is too willing to push for regime change in turbulent nations around the world.
But all three candidates pointedly bashed Donald Trump and the Republican party, and here they were singing from the same songbook. "On our worst day, we have a lot more to offer the American people" than Republicans, said Sanders. "You're not going to hear anything like this from any of the Republicans running for president," said Clinton.
It was a reminder that Clinton wants the primary season to end as quickly and painlessly as possible so she can start preparing for the general election. The fact that Sanders and O'Malley seem willing to play out her ideal strategy makes it seem less likely than ever that Democrats will see Clinton toppled from the lead.
Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel.
S.E. Cupp: Where were the answers on national security?
Well, it's obvious why the Democratic contenders would rather discuss the economy than national security, which is the top concern among voters: they don't have any answers.
Hillary Clinton offered "coalitions" as a solution to any number of foreign and domestic dangers. The answer to guns? Coalitions. ISIS? Coalitions. She touted her own record of coalition-building in Libya and Iran, which Republicans will have fun with in a general election. She said simply that she'd "do more to keep us safe at home." She suggested Russians would respect a no-fly zone in Syria. Does anyone trust Hillary Clinton's instincts on Russia?
Bernie Sanders seems to think he will be able to magically make Muslims in the Middle East fight ISIS so that we don't have to. When pushed, he offered no explanation as to how he'd accomplish what this administration has not.
O'Malley tried to "generationally" distinguish himself from Clinton and Bernie but talked primarily about boosting intelligence efforts, which is hard to do without added boots on the ground.
While criticizing government spying, they each heaped praise on spying on each other. "See something, Say something" is a PR campaign, not a national security policy. These aren't serious strategies, but merely continuations of our current strategy at home and abroad to lead from behind.
S.E. Cupp is the author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack on Christianity," co-author of "Why You're Wrong About the Right" and a columnist at the New York Daily News.
Donna Brazile: What Sanders and Clinton could teach Trump
The Democrats had their third debate in New Hampshire Saturday and there was literally no mocking, no belittling--and the fact checkers
kept coming up with "mostly true" (for Clinton, at least). The contrast with the Republicans, was stark.
Less than 24 hours before the debate, red-hot press releases and charges flew between the Sanders and Clinton camps over a donor list data breach. On stage, Sanders and Clinton showed how adults handle disputes. They each made their point, then made up. Sanders showed Trump how a man takes responsibility, and apologizes. The contretemps was dispensed with in the first few minutes.
There followed spirited debates over regime change, gun control, and middle class taxes. For the most part, the candidates at Saturday's Democratic debate in New Hampshire were on the same page. In fact, the most common phrase of the night may have been "Let me agree...."
The candidates even found room for agreement with all of the Republican candidates on one important strategic issue—you can never go wrong by attacking the frontrunner of the other party. Just as the GOP candidates spent much of their debate attacking Hillary Clinton, all three of the Democrats went after Donald Trump.
Senator Bernie Sanders said that Trump "thinks low wages are a good idea." Governor Martin O'Malley warned that we "must never surrender our American values to racists, must never surrender them to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths." And Secretary Hillary Clinton pointedly said of Trump that "He is becoming ISIS' best recruiter."
Whether or not Trump is the eventual Republican nominee, all of the Democratic candidates clearly understand that they can benefit by being forthright in condemning the direction that the Trump candidacy is taking the Republican Party... because the Republicans clearly don't seem to have the courage to do that.
Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for civic engagement and voter participation at the Democratic National Committee. A nationally syndicated columnist, she is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of "Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Robby Soave: This issue Hillary Clinton can't run from
Does anyone have an actual ISIS plan? Hillary Clinton remained steadfastly convinced in the debate last night that Americans should buy into her strategy—that they should trust the person who almost singlehandedly turned Libya into an ISIS breeding ground to somehow remake Syria into the kind of progressive democracy that would justify U.S. assistance.
Never mind that Clinton's strategy is virtually indistinguishable from most of her Republican rivals—build an international coalition, vaguely contain the terrorists, and leave the door open for eventual ground troops.
Bernie Sanders had the best moment of the night when he impugned the Clinton/GOP consensus on deposing Middle Easter dictators. "Regime change is easy ... but you have to think about what happens the day after," he said. Sanders demonstrated that he is one of just a few candidates—on the other side of the aisle, libertarian-leaning Republican Sen. Rand Paul is another—who understands the chaos that follows ill-considered U.S. intervention in Syria.
It's one of the main reasons war-skeptical millennials continue to prefer him to Clinton. Her rebuttal that Sanders also supported the failed intervention in Libya was hardly convincing—it was her war.
Meanwhile, Martin O'Malley's ludicrously off-putting demeanor--he took a dig at his rivals for being older, for goodness sake--made it hard to pay attention to him, even when he was echoing Sanders' concerns about ill-considered Middle Eastern interventions.
Robby Soave writes for the libertarian magazine Reason. Follow him on Twitter @robbysoave
Haroon Moghul: O'Malley's tough words for Trump
Last Tuesday's GOP debate was nearly entirely devoted to ISIS. Jeb Bush called the group an "existential threat," and none disagreed. Candidates proposed a surveillance state so large, or a military footprint so huge, or an aggressiveness so audacious, that it was hard to know just how high taxes would have to go to pay for it. If I had to guess, to rates even Bernie Sanders wouldn't tolerate.
Tonight was the first Democratic debate since San Bernardino, and what a contrast with the themes and tone of the GOP's version. There was much to like. Not only did Martin O'Malley denounce Trump, as he consistently has (tonight he called him a fascist), but he stood up for the Muslim community from the get-go.
He showed up with more energy than he had for last debate, though it never seems to translate into any momentum.
The race is still between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and it is still Clinton's to lose. She was calm and confident tonight. She often had the audience laughing (she showed up late after a break in the second half and managed to turn that into a light moment). And she even wrapped it all up with a Jedi invocation. That said, I saw new reason to wonder about her candidacy tonight.
Hyping the threat posed by Islamic extremism allows Republicans to overlook more pressing problems: income inequality, racial injustice, the shrinking middle class, climate change. Very often, when they make the issue of national security a dominant concern, Democrats turn hawkish. Clinton did that in her support for the Iraq war. What is to say that she will not do so again?
Sanders laid out, very clearly, why he believes intervention is problematic, and why our foreign policy adventures backfire. (O'Malley seconded him.) Hillary seems more cautious about joining in. Maybe that's because she doesn't want to be hit on her Iraq war record, or maybe that's because she hasn't really changed her positions.
Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul.
Frida Ghitis: Clinton the hawk
The Republicans Party should be worried. The New Hampshire debate proved once again that Hillary Clinton has not been spending her time playing grandmother. She has prepared thoroughly to take on whoever becomes the GOP nominee. Whether or not you agree with her views, there is no denying that she is as well versed on a wide range of issues as anyone in the race.
The debate offered a stark contrast with the Republicans' invective-plagued season. The Democrats were civil and the debate sharply focused on policy differences.
In contrast to Bernie Sanders, Clinton showed more hawkish foreign policy views than President Barack Obama. She is carefully staying fairly close to the president during this primary phase, but expect changes once she is nominated. She offered a preview of what's to come. In the fall, she will highlight the differences, explaining how Syria and ISIS went out of control partly because Obama rejected her advice to arm moderate Syrian rebels years ago.
Syria served as a canvas to draw the candidates' overarching views of America's place in the world. Sanders used the old line about the U.S. not being the world's policeman. Hillary said, "If the United States doesn't lead, there's not another leader. We have to lead." Where does Trump stand on that?
Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. Follow her @FridaGhitis
. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Bakari Sellers: What the candidates left out
With an electorate distracted by the six shopping days left until Christmas, I didn't expect much out of the Democratic candidate's debate tonight.
Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders continued to pull away from Governor O'Malley, who lacks Sanders' authenticity or Clinton's experience. Sanders dealt with a dustup with Clinton over a data breach quickly and effectively. Clinton made gun control a national security issue. And everyone piled on Trump.
But I noticed something, or rather the absence of something, that I hadn't before: fear.
You see, the defining characteristic of American politics for the better part of 20 years has been fear. Fear of terrorism, fear of the deficit, fear of change, fear of immigration. We have become so used to the fear in politics that it's absence can be frightening in itself.
But tonight I was reminded that we weren't always so scared and we can't afford to be now. Tonight we saw a politics that wasn't running scared. We'll find out next year whether it's a winning strategy, but tonight it certainly felt good.
Bakari Sellers, a CNN contributor, served in South Carolina's House of Representatives from 2006 to 2014. He is an attorney at the Strom Law Firm in South Carolina. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.