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Opinion

How the Democrats differ after first debate

While the Democratic Party was the clear victor in Tuesday night's debate, real differences between the candidates did emerge, couched in a framework of substantive, detailed discussions of policies and positions.

No insults, no food fights. That was mostly not the case in the first two Republican debates. Hopefully, it will be in future ones.

Here are some of the most striking ways in which the five Democratic candidates offered different takes in Las Vegas.

Capitalism

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he doesn't support
Photo Credit: Getty Images / Spencer Platt

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he doesn't support capitalism, and Hillary Rodham Clinton jumped on him with a nicely prepared strategy: The former secretary of state framed her support of the economic system in terms of entrepreneurship and the furtherance of small- and medium-sized businesses.

That prompted Sanders to backtrack, saying that, of course, he supports small- and medium-size businesses, too. Sanders won't bring about the revolution he seeks if he continues to frame his opposition to income inequality as opposition to capitalism -- a system that has brought more people into the middle-class than any other in history.

Guns

Sanders said he favors universal background checks, closing
Photo Credit: Uli Seit

Sanders said he favors universal background checks, closing the loophole that allows gun show sales without those checks, and cracking down on "straw man" purchases. But he also argued that states should have a lot of say on gun laws, because of their differing natures.

His opposition to the Brady Bill and votes against holding gun manufacturers liable for the deaths caused by guns may appeal to swing voters, but they separated him from everyone else on stage except former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia.

While Clinton advocates for the more sweeping changes the Democratic base wants, the things Sanders supports are largely the things the others could reasonably hope to achieve.

Foreign military action

Clinton will always be on the defensive on
Photo Credit: AP / Khalid Mohammed

Clinton will always be on the defensive on this issue among Democrats for her vote to authorize the Iraq War. And she should be. Sanders voted against the war in the Senate, as did former Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, the only Republican (he later switched parties) to do so.

But it’s also clear going forward, particularly on the conflict in Syria and our willingness to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Clinton prefers a more aggressive use of our military than Sanders, who said, "I will do anything I can to make sure we don’t get involved in another quagmire." Which is a wise and noble, if sometimes difficult-to-follow policy.

Financial regulation

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley hammered Clinton for
Photo Credit: AP / Richard Drew

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley hammered Clinton for opposing reinstating the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which prevented commercial banks from operating in the investment and insurance markets.

In this crowd, Clinton was largely isolated in that view, with the other candidates, Sanders most vehemently, arguing that the big banks need to be broken up and much more closely regulated to prevent a repeat of the 2008 crisis.

College tuition

Sanders supports free public college and university tuition
Photo Credit: iStock

Sanders supports free public college and university tuition for all. She has said she doesn't want it be free for the wealthy, and wants students who get free tuition to have to work 10 hours a week. The difference seems to be largely one of optics and general philosophy - free services provided by the government are at the root of what Sanders, and not Clinton, will fight for.

The Patriot Act

Sanders cast the one vote in the Senate
Photo Credit: AP

Sanders cast the one vote in the Senate against 99 in support of the Patriot Act, and he stood by it Tuesday night with the notable quote "If we are a free country, we have the right to be free." Clinton voted for the act, with its warrantless surveillance authorizations, but decried abuses of the powers it grants. It's a huge difference between them.

Overall, the real difference between the Democratic poll leaders is that Clinton favors an evolution toward progressive goals, a stance her establishment backers can live with, while Sanders essentially supports an immediate social revolution toward a much more progressive society.

Both appeared willing to explain that clearly Tuesday night, and let the voters do the rest.

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