For Democrats, a revolutionary vs. a pragmatist

Story highlights

  • Democratic candidates debated Sunday night, two weeks before the Iowa caucus
  • Commentators say Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton offered sharp contrasts

(CNN)The Democratic candidates for President debated in South Carolina Sunday, two weeks before the Iowa caucus. CNN Opinion asked commentators, including several in the early primary states, for their takes on the debate. The opinions expressed are theirs.

Timothy Stanley: Bernie's raw, pure anger drives Democrats to the left

It's widely believed that the Democratic National Committee has done its best to restrict the number of debates -- and tonight it became obvious why. Hillary Clinton was outperformed by Bernie Sanders, who embarrassed the establishment favorite and helped drive the Democrats further to the left.
    The man's anger is raw and pure. I have a long list of utility companies I'd love him to call on my behalf.
    Timothy Stanley
    Sanders kept returning to the theme of campaign finance reform as a way of driving a wedge between himself and Clinton. It underscores Bernie's outsider status and gives him a "golden bullet" policy -- an answer to all of America's problems that's as understandable and straightforward as Donald Trump's wall.
    Sanders deployed it best when pointing out that Clinton has received speaker's fees from Goldman Sachs. This is true. Last year, CNN reported that: "Clinton made $3.15 million in 2013 alone from speaking to firms like Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and UBS."
    But while most of America would agree that special interest politics is bad and Wall Street too powerful, the rest of the discussion in South Carolina was way to the left of mainstream opinion.
    For the first 30 minutes, each candidate pledged to raise spending, reduce access to guns and crack down on alleged racism in the criminal justice system.
    The rush to condemn the police, for instance, is bound to come back to haunt the eventual nominee in the general election. So too will the reluctance to talk about foreign policy, which was treated as an academic afterthought.
    With everybody's eyes on Trump's campaign in the Republican primary, our attentions are distracted by the quieter, but no less polarizing process of radicalization taking place among Democrats. No attempt was made in the debate to reach out to rural voters, religious voters or those troubled by a recent increase in violent crime in some cities.
    Conservatives have become more ideological -- of this we are constantly reminded. But so, too, have liberals. How else to explain why Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, is running ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire?
    It's no surprise that he's doing particularly well among the young. Clinton is running more to the left than usual but still has the aura of "status quo" about her.
    For voters under 40, the status quo won't do. Obamacare has offered them a bad deal, college tuition is bankrupting them, jobs are poorly paid and racial tension is high. The kids don't want to return to a 1990s idyll that they can't even remember. They want serious, radical change.
    Meanwhile, the clear loser of the night was poor old Martin O'Malley -- who lacked the charisma to keep up with his opponents. The only thing he said during one question round was "good question." The smartest thing he could do for his historical reputation would be to drop out before the voting begins.
    Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics."

    Sally Kohn: My mother-in-law's take is a good sign for Clinton

    Throughout heated exchanges on guns, health care and other issues in Sunday's Democratic candidate debate, two things were clear: First, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are exceptionally strong when on the attack but ineffective, if not downright unappealing, when on the defense.
    Whichever of them wins the nomination (and sorry, Gov. O'Malley, it's likely going to be one of those two) they have to get much better at being graceful under attack, or even turning the attack to their advantage. Because this is going to be an ugly, attack-filled general election.
    Sally Kohn
    The other takeaway: This was an astonishingly substantive debate, especially if you compare it with the vacuous, petty Republican debates. In those debates, we learn what the Republicans don't like about each others' hair and faces and what they don't like about President Obama.
    In this debate, though, we not only learned the Democratic candidates' positions in broad strokes but in detail -- not just that they want to raise wages for working people and rein in Wall Street, but some details about their different tax policies and who would or would not reinstate Glass Steagall. And Sanders touted his new proposal to create Medicare for all, while Clinton accused Sanders of wanting to scrap the Affordable Care Act instead of embracing and improving it.
    The simple fact is that all three of the Democratic contenders proved themselves to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, visionary leaders. I can't imagine anyone objectively watching can universally say the same thing about the GOP crop of candidates. It's a debate that made me proud to be a Democrat.
    But did it sway any voters? Well. I was watching with one, my mother-in-law Gloria. She considers herself a Sanders supporter but, as the debate ended, told me she didn't see a lot of difference between the Democratic candidates: "Their basic ideas are similar."
    This is probably a good signal for Clinton. In an era of economic populism, faced with an opponent who plainly challenges her coziness with Wall Street, that Clinton can erase any sense of difference between her and Sanders is a victory for Clinton.
    Meanwhile, what does it come down to for Gloria? "Who can actually get things done." And that also, I'm afraid, favors Clinton. It's just hard to see Sanders, with his wagging finger, unkempt hair and old-guy-I-don't-care attitude as someone who could actually be President, let alone find ways to bridge the hyper-partisan divide and intransigence my mother-in-law describes as a major concern.
    Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter: @sallykohn.

    Dean Spiliotes: Democats and Republicans in parallel universes

    If voters want further proof that the Republican and Democratic presidential races are unfolding in parallel political universes, they need look no further than the two recent debates from each party.
    Dean Spiliotes
    None of the Democratic presidential hopefuls at last night's debate in South Carolina mentioned national security as a top three priority for the first 100 days in office. Contrast that with a Republican presidential debate on Thursday, in which candidates focused almost exclusively on the threat of global terrorism and ISIS.
    Hillary Clinton's strategy once again consisted of being the smartest, best-prepared student in class. She did her homework, hitting Bernie Sanders with a litany of details about his voting record on gun control and health care. Clinton has pushed the gun control issue in New Hampshire, where polls show a majority of Democratic voters favor some sort of reform.
    Clinton emphasized her experience, competence and continuity with President Obama in the debate, no small matter in South Carolina, where Obama is very popular with the many African-American voters in the state.
    Bernie Sanders continued to be a man on an economic mission, full of populist passion, with a tendency to reduce his policy prescriptions to eradicating the evils associated with the millionaires and billionaires who populate PACs, Wall Street banks and insurance companies.
    This approach has really resonated with progressives in New Hampshire, where Sanders leads in most polls. Sanders handled an intense workout in the debate, but he needs to get better at explaining policy specifics underlying the larger principles about which he is so passionate. He has a tendency to speak in universal terms, which has also hurt him with the Black Lives Matter movement in the past.
    Martin O'Malley was a good sport, but was largely a sidebar in the debate, reduced to parenthetical comments on the Clinton-Sanders engagement, occasional anecdotes about Baltimore and asking the moderators for more time.
    On balance, the debate will not likely have a significant impact on the race's overall dynamic. For all the talk of Clinton continuity versus Sanders revolution, this spirited debate was a rather orderly affair, especially by Republican debate standards.
    Dean Spiliotes is a Southern New Hampshire University Civic Scholar and founder of

    S.E. Cupp: A night of missed opportunities

    Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had deficits to overcome and opportunities to do so ... and for the most part, they both squandered them.
    With Sanders' recent gains in the polls -- in Iowa, in New Hampshire, among women, among young people -- in large part because of his push for universal health care, Clinton needed to take on his new plan on substance.
    S.E. Cupp
    It was released just hours before the debate, but it didn't require any in-depth analysis. It would raise taxes on the middle class, and that's all she needed to say. Instead, she decided to stick with the ridiculously Clintonian narrative that Sanders is against Obamacare, and thus against Obama. It looked small, petty and unserious. Sanders' plan will out-tax Sweden, and yet he walked away from that debate the winner.
    On the other side, Sanders is getting slammed by Clinton on his gun record. It's a smart play for her -- his nuanced and Vermont-focused votes on various gun legislation will not be understood or appreciated by most Democratic, anti-gun voters. However, she's used the gun issue to smear his character time and again.
    After Clinton railed against his gun positions tonight, painting him out to be a blood-thirsty gun nut, the debate moderators (inexplicably) didn't ask him to respond. Even more inexplicably, he didn't ask to. The last words voters heard on guns were Hillary's, and that's to his great detriment.
    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.

    Issac Bailey: Sanders fails on the gun issue

    Sunday night, Hillary Clinton proved, again, that she's maybe the most experienced, qualified candidate in the field.
    Bernie Sanders talked like the revolutionary, particularly against the influence of money in our politics, but did not extend his daring to another vital issue.
    Issac Bailey
    Clinton remained the prose, Sanders the poetry, of the campaign. (Martin O'Malley still doesn't belong on the stage.)
    Clinton's embrace of President Obama during the debate will endear her to black South Carolina voters who've been outraged by the disrespect they felt he's had to endure the past seven years.
    Sanders' inability to come up with a clear answer on gun control will hurt him with those same voters. On everything else, he is the dreamer. He doesn't accept limitations on what can be done on health care and reforming Wall Street, each an enormous task.
    On guns -- one of the most important issues for the Democrats in the audience -- Sanders sounded tentative, as though he was forced to say something he doesn't believe.
    That might play well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but not in the Palmetto State among the voters Sanders needs most. They are looking for a moonshot to curb gun violence, while it sounds as though Sanders would do little more than maintain the status quo.
    If Sanders is serious about breaking through beyond the first two states, he must show a greater willingness to be bold in areas other than railing against Wall Street.
    Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for the past two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow. Twitter: @ijbailey

    Tim Hagle: Will Iowa opt for the dreamer or the pragmatist?

    The Democrats put on a surprisingly lively debate. The big question before the debate was whether Sanders would go after Clinton hard. He did on several issues.
    Sanders was strong on the health care issue as he was more aspirational, arguing for universal health care, compared to Clinton's pragmatic approach of building on Obamacare.
    Timothy Hagle
    She noted that she didn't want to have a big argument over health care again which seemed to undercut her claim to be a fighter.
    Sanders also went after Clinton hard on the banking issue, noting that she had given paid speeches for Goldman Sachs.
    Where Sanders missed an opportunity was in not criticizing Clinton on some of the foreign policy issues. That wasn't a particular surprise, but it's also an area where Clinton shows some weakness with voters.
    Even so, foreign policy and national security were little mentioned in the debate as Democrats tend to focus much more on domestic issues.
    In fact, none of the candidates mentioned either foreign policy or national security as being among their first priorities as president.
    O'Malley was all but invisible in the debate. That's no surprise given his low polling numbers, but interesting given that his supporters in the Iowa caucuses could very well have a significant effect on whether Clinton or Sanders wins the state.
    Speaking of Iowa, it's not likely that the debate will do much to sway caucus-goers. Many would likely prefer Sanders' position on several issues but are concerned about his electability.
    The Sanders campaign has the greater enthusiasm, but the question is whether Iowa Democrats will opt for a candidate they feel has a better chance to win in the general election. Eight years ago they took a chance on Barack Obama and won. We'll find out on February 1 if that happens again.
    Tim Hagle is a political science professor at the University of Iowa and author of the "Iowa Voting Series." Follow him @ProfHagle.

    Raul A. Reyes: Democrats made GOP debates look like "Kids' Table"

    Tonight's Democratic debate separated the adults from the children. This forum from South Carolina made all of the Republican debates so far deserving of the moniker "Kids' Table."
    Although Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley voiced their policy differences with passion, there were no insults. There was no name-calling or grandstanding. There were no "birther" distractions. Instead we had two hours of substantive debate over genuine issues.
    Raul Reyes
    This was a win for viewers. It is a shame that this event took place under the auspices of what might be called the "Democratic National Committee Witness Protection Program" -- which scheduled the debate on a holiday weekend during the football playoffs and against "Downton Abbey."
    It is worth noting that, when asked what their priorities would be in their first 100 days in office, none of the three candidates mentioned ISIS.
    There was some Olympic-level pivoting on display tonight. When Sanders was asked about his lack of minority support, he quickly segued into mention of how well he would do against Donald Trump in a general election. Nearly every time Sanders challenged Clinton on their health care differences, she responded by invoking her loyalty to President Obama, thereby dodging the actual questions.
    Still, it is hard to pick a clear winner. Sanders had Clinton on the defensive over her ties to Wall Street and her resistance to universal health care for all. His reminder to viewers that Clinton received large speaking fees from Goldman Sachs was spot on, as it neatly distilled the arguments over financial reform to a question of allegiance.
    Clinton in turn smoothly pushed back at Sanders on his uneven record of support for gun control (he voted five times against the Brady Bill, which required that everyone who bought a gun to wait five days for local authorities to conduct criminal background checks).
    Clinton also shone in the foreign policy and national security discussions, displaying her ease and familiarity with these complicated issues. Both candidates scored strong points for themselves, so let's call the evening a draw between them. And bravo to both of them for mentioning the Flint, Michigan water crisis in their final remarks.
    Sad to say, the loser of the night was O'Malley. He barely qualified for this debate, which may have been his last, best chance to make an impression on potential voters. Yet he was a third wheel throughout the evening and had to beg for questions and for response time.
    At one point, he pleaded with moderator Lester Holt for "just ten seconds!" -- but Holt ignored him and cut to a commercial. To his credit, O'Malley noted in his closing statement that there has been no discussion of immigration reform, immigration detention, the Central American refugee crisis or the treatment of Puerto Rico by hedge funds.
    It was surprising that there was no discussion of women's reproductive rights, an important issue to the Democratic base.
    The most memorable moment of the evening may have been when Clinton was asked to characterize her relationship with Vladimir Putin. With a smile, she carefully described it as "interesting" -- making the relationship between two world figures sound like a Facebook status update. She seemed to suggest that yes, it's complicated.
    Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him @RaulAReyes.

    Laura Belin: Sanders' best debate and a solid Clinton

    Hillary Clinton was solid and Bernie Sanders turned in his best debate performance yet in Charleston.
    I suspect these moments will particularly resonate with Iowa caucus-goers, based on my conversations with hundreds of Iowa Democrats and on how I've seen crowds react to the candidates.
    Laura Belin
    Best moments for Clinton:
    • Reminding viewers that she has stood up to Republicans and remains their primary target. For instance, Clinton noted that Karl Rove is running ads against her, financed by wealthy donors, because "I'm the one they don't want to be up against."
    • Hailing President Barack Obama's key domestic and foreign policy achievements and promising to build on his legacy.
    • Speaking passionately about "systemic racism" in the criminal justice system. Although the African-American electorate is not nearly as big a factor in Iowa as it will be in South Carolina, Iowa audiences have responded favorably when candidates have spoken about such issues, and black voters will be a significant presence in numerous Iowa precincts on February 1.
    • Closing the debate with a powerful statement of outrage over lead-poisoned water in the largely poor and majority African-American city of Flint, Michigan.
    For Sanders:
    • Parrying criticism of his single-payer health care proposal. Evoking the dream of FDR and Harry Truman to enact universal health care, Sanders argued that the money middle-class families could save on private health insurance premiums would more than compensate for higher taxes.
    • Highlighting Clinton's ties to Wall Street, including $600,000 in personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
    • Repeatedly returning to the problem of a "rigged" economy and "corrupt" campaign finance system, which gives too much power to billionaires and corporate interests.
    Laura Belin is the primary author at the website Bleeding Heartland. She has been covering Iowa politics since 2007, writing as "desmoinesdem." You can follow her @desmoinesdem.