Critic's Notebook: After Somber Start, Democrats Get Combative In Second Debate

Clinton Sanders CBS - H - 2015
Associated Press

Somehow, that "block of granite" Lincoln Chafee and the perpetually whining Jim Webb weren't missed.

The specter of the previous day's horrific terrorist attacks in Paris hung heavily over the Democratic presidential debate. For a little while, at least.

The event began in somber fashion with a moment of silence. Although the evening was supposed to have focused on domestic affairs, it had quickly been rejiggered to reflect international events, no doubt forcing the candidates to frantically cram for their debate prep as if it were a pop quiz.

The ensuing questions didn't produce a wide variety of responses, with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley all stressing international cooperation in the war on terrorism and none taking the bait of referring to the threat from "radical Islam." Instead, as if quoting from a playbook, they used the phrase "radical jihadist." At last, something on which they all could agree.

Clinton naturally received the lion's share of harsh attention, thanks to her Senate vote endorsing the Iraq War and her stint as secretary of state. But she fended off the criticism over such issues as the intervention in Libya without raising a sweat. After her recent 11-hour stint answering questions at the Benghazi hearing, this was obviously a cakewalk.

After such less-than-revelatory disclosures as Sanders' declaration that "I am not a big fan of regime change," the debate segued to domestic affairs, and a more combative tone. Although it was hardly antagonistic compared to the Republicans; if you took a shot every time Sanders or O'Malley prefaced a criticism of Clinton by saying "with all due respect," you would have been on the floor in minutes.

Asked how high he expected tax rates to go under his administration, Sanders would only allow that it would be less than 90 percent.

"I'm not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower," he joked, getting one of the bigger laughs of the evening. Later he evoked the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt in response to another question, making one wonder if this Independent running as a Democrat is secretly a Republican.

Responding to a question on immigration, O'Malley got perhaps the night's biggest response when he angrily referred to "that immigrant-bashing carnival-barker Donald Trump." The Donald, presumably watching with his large entourage, was no doubt thrilled that he managed to steal a Democratic debate as well.

Sanders once again declined to raise the issue of Clinton's e-mails. He pointed out that after he said in the last debate that that people were "sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails," media attention on them seemed to dissipate.

"I didn't know I had so much power," he said, using his best Larry David impression.

But in a response to another question he did vigorously go after Clinton regarding her close ties to Wall Street and her financial support from the big banks.

"He has basically used his answer to impugn my integrity," she huffed, before bizarrely saying that she helped support Wall Street when she was a New York senator as a way of rebuking the terrorists after 9/11. Rudy Giuliani would have been proud.

The issue of gun control provided the candidates with plenty of live ammunition. O'Malley, mayor of the city that inspired the bleak, violence-ridden television The Wire, went on the attack: "Secretary Clinton, you've been on three sides of this," he declared. Sanders, meanwhile, commented, "With all due respect, I think it's safe to say that Baltimore is not one of the safest big cities in America."

The final question posed by moderator John Dickerson (wearing an unfortunate garish tie that looked like a test pattern) was also the quirkiest, and it produced appropriately quirky responses. Asked which crisis in her life had tested her most, Clinton prefaced her answer by saying, "There are so many I don't know where to start." But she obviously did know, because she said it was her advice to President Obama to approve the raid on Osama Bin Laden. Again, Rudy Giuliani would have been proud.

O'Malley, perhaps having been secretly injected with truth serum, admitted that no crises on the state or local level have fully tested him for the job of president before launching into some gobbledygook about "feedback mechanisms" and the like.

Sanders probably won't be invited to many more Senate parties after his answer, about having to "sit down with people like John McCain" in order to get a veteran's bill passed that he didn't even like.

Don't look for this debate to score the massive ratings earned by the Republican events. For one thing, everyone onstage seemed relatively sane. For another, it was broadcast by CBS on Saturday night. You didn't really expect them to preempt NCIS for this, did you?