Ted Rall: What To Watch For Tonight On The Democratic Presidential Debate

democratic presidential debate
Written by Ted Rall

The Democratic Presidential Debate is tonight in Las Vegas. Here’s Ted Rall on what to look out for. Analysis, commentary.

ted-rall-democratic-national-debateaNewDomainWhat happens in Vegas tonight will certainly not stay in Vegas — the first face-to-face meeting of Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley will set the tone for the rest of the campaign, and possibly change politics for years to come. Here’s what you need to know — and what you should look out for.

It’s Hillary’s to lose — and she just might …

 Hillary’s still inevitable — but Bernie is closing in fast. If current trends keep (in politics, they rarely do), he’ll expand his lead beyond the initial battleground states of Iowa and New Hampshire into the South, where he is weak among African-American voters.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is, as Dave Edmunds once sang, nowhere on the charts. Mostly this is due to the fact that, as a mayor of Baltimore, he was the architect of police practices that inflict violence on unarmed black suspects. With nothing to lose tonight, he might surprise.

This is currently a contest between a staid center-right known quantity trying to recover from the ongoing scandal over her emails — a mess that calls her main selling point, competence, into question — and an insurgent who is energizing a party base that has had to put up and shut up for decades. If Sanders can project that certain intangible presidential timber vibe Americans look for tonight, we may look back ontonight as the decisive moment on the Democratic side. That doesn’t mean toning down the fire-and-brimstone that has him filling stadiums. It means being angry about greedy rich people, but going after them calmly.

Hillary’s job is to bring that real person with a sense of humor we keep reading about in quotes of people who’ve spent time with her downing hard liquor. Playing it safe — the usual approach for all candidates in debates — would be the absolute worse thing she could tonight. We’re not looking for apologies. But she needs to convince Dems that she’s running for them. So far the race has been all about her — and that’s her fault. Seven years into our first black president, the mere idea of a first woman won’t be enough to generate excitement.

Things are bound to get wonky

Unlike the (frankly, more entertaining) Republican debates, which were characterized by ridiculous and petty personal attacks, tonight’saffair will offer up a lot of long-winded discourses of three-point job-creation and five-point tax-reform plans.

This is due to two factors.

With only three candidates (as opposed to 10 in each of two GOP debates), there won’t be any other way to fill up two and a half hours.

Sanders, a long-time opponent of negative campaigning, has made clear that he won’t attack Hillary. That leaves Hillary no choice but to take the high road. If she insults Bernie, she’d might as well turn over the keys to the convention hall right there. O’Malley might go after both; that’s what I’d advise him to do in order to get noticed. Odds are 50-50 on O’Malley’s approach tonight: passive or aggressive. Either way, I think, he needs to be Carly Fiorina impressive to break out of the single digit doldrums.

Known unknown: Bernie on foreign policy

Hillary’s staffers would be idiots not to have her go long on matters of war and peace. She’s a former secretary of state, after all. And Bernie doesn’t talk much about wars, terrorism, drones, that post-9/11 stuff. Here’s where Hillary could make a play for the leftie vote: come out against drones, closing Gitmo and banning torture for real. No one buys her flip-flops on Keystone XL or TPP; she’s in too deep with the corporate money pigs for that. But with Bernie having left an opening on foreign policy in the discourse, she can walk right in if she chooses to do so.

Of course, Bernie’s people would be morons not to anticipate this. So I’d look for Bernie to articulate a full-throated vision of a post-Bush-Obama foreign policy from the left, with an isolationist bent meant to appeal to Republican voters in the general: take care of America first, defend ourselves when necessary but go easy on regime change, let’s resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before we get a third intadafa.

No one cares what O’Malley says about foreign policy.

And expect lots and lots of personal anecdotes …

Theirs, and ours. Time will allow for lots of touching and heartwarming and sad stories of Americans in need or doing good things. Which, since Americans don’t know much about Bernie’s personal life and think Hill is a bot and Martin is nobody, all the candidates will feel a big need to explain themselves.

Bernie and African American voters

Conventional wisdom, so rarely right, is correct when it says Bernie Sanders needs to make himself known to African-American voters without whom he can’t carry the South. He’s white, white, refrigerator white as Dave Edmund’s pal Nick Lowe used to sing, but he’s got civil rights creds and now he’s going to cash them in. Look for a big broadside against police brutality, inner-city poverty, the prison-industrial complex.

The last word

The last Republican debate featured Donald Trump making fun of Rand Paul’s hair. And there were 10 of candidates up there!

Still, any presidential debate is bound to get boring after 90 minutes or so. Trumpless and with just three candidates up there, none of whom seems inclined to get personal, that’ll happen even sooner.

So if I were advising the candidates tonight, I’d tell them to come out strong because there won’t be many people watching by the final statements.

Bernie knows. He tuned out before the end too.

Cover image: WQAD.com, All Rights Reserved.