Recapping the first Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential election cycle


The first Democratic debate predictably featured a showdown between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. According to a CNN poll, 62 percent of Democrats said Clinton came away with the win, compared to Sanders’ 35 percent. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, and former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee remain at the bottom of the polls after the first debate.

Chafee has since dropped out of the race, while Webb has ceased seeking the Democratic nomination, saying he will consider running as an Independent candidate.

The debate, moderated by Anderson Cooper of CNN, covered at least a dozen topics including national security, economic opportunity, the financial sector, climate change, and hot-button social issues including gun control, the legalization of marijuana, immigration reform, and race issues.

Climate change was discussed frequently throughout the debate. O’Malley took the strongest stance on the issue, citing climate change as the greatest threat to national security and announcing a plan to move America to a 100-percent clean electric grid by 2050.

Sanders shared O’Malley’s opinion that climate change is the greatest threat to national security and boldly proclaimed, “The scientific community is telling us that the planet we leave for our kids and for our grandkids may not be habitable.”

Clinton pointed out, “There will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world.”

Cooper asked Webb to comment on the fact that he stands apart from the rest of the Democratic Party in his support of the use of coal, the Keystone Pipeline, and offshore drilling. Webb answered by echoing Clinton’s point that the cooperation of the whole world is essential to affecting global climate change.

While discussing the expansion of economic opportunity, candidates debated topics ranging from income inequality to mandated paid family leave. Sanders proposed creating millions of jobs by repairing infrastructure, raising the minimum wage to $15, expanding Social Security, establishing equal pay for women, providing Medicare coverage for all Americans, and eliminating tuition for public college.

Clinton met Sanders’ call for the expansion of Social Security and Medicare with hesitation but agreed with his proposal to get rid of college tuition, though the means of doing so proved to be a divisive point for the two candidates. Sanders suggested that he would fund his initiative with a tax on Wall Street speculation, an idea met with resounding applause from the audience.

Clinton laid out a more nuanced plan to allow all Americans with college debt to refinance to a lower interest rate and to offer free college tuition to all Americans with the stipulation that they work 10 hours a week.

O’Malley concluded the discussion of economic opportunity by stating, “The genius of our nation is that we find ways in every generation to include more of our people more fully in the economic life of our country.”

On immigration, all candidates pushed for comprehensive reform. Webb and O’Malley specifically called for the expansion of Obamacare to include undocumented workers and their families.

Clinton accused Sanders of being too lenient on gun control, differentiating herself by calling for gun shops and manufacturers to be held legally responsible for mass shootings. While the other four candidates collectively boasted their failing NRA ratings, Webb, who once had an A rating from the NRA, took a starkly different stance. Webb held the traditionally conservative position, insisting, “We have to respect the tradition in this country of people who want to defend themselves and their family from violence.”

Clinton called for a “new New Deal” to combat race issues, which would include education and criminal justice reform, as well as adherence to Obama’s current race agenda.

At several points in the debate, Cooper called into question each candidate’s electability, giving them the opportunity to respond to the biggest concerns voters have about their respective competency. Specifically, Cooper asked if the title of democratic socialist would prove to be a “tragic flaw” preventing Bernie Sanders from overtaking Clinton in the polls.

On this subject, Vincent Muñoz, Professor of Political Science, shared the opinion of many Americans that Sanders’ radicalism will prove to be his downfall.  “I think Sanders’ embrace of the label of socialism will necessarily hurt him in the general election and even in the Democratic primary,” he told the Rover.

Another major question in this so-called “Year of the Outsider” is whether Hillary Clinton’s name will be more of an asset or a weakness to her campaign.

To this question, Muñoz responded, “Both. She’s a proven leader and is obviously well-known and has a track record of significant public service, but the Clinton name has a track record of scandal.”

Though no new frontrunners emerged, the first Democratic debate gave voters the opportunity to watch candidates argue for different solutions and perspectives for the first time this election season. As in every debate, the American people had the unique opportunity to challenge the candidates with their concerns about the future of the nation. The next Democratic debate is scheduled for November 14.

Keenan White is a freshman political science and history double major living in Ryan who is named after her dad’s dorm, Keenan Hall. Contact her at