Democratic Candidates All Want to Destroy ISIS, But Mostly Debate Domestic Issues

A day after the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the three Democratic presidential candidates told a national audience that America must be part of an international coalition that uses military force and other tools to destroy ISIS, but gave little insight into their thinking about how they would confront the threat in an increasingly volatile world. 

Compared to remarks by the Republican candidates on Saturday (Donald Trump said France’s gun control laws worsened the carnage while others said President Obama created ISIS by bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq), the Democratic candidates were less inflammatory, more nuanced and projected some understanding of the region’s complexity.

“We have to look at ISIS as the leading threat of an international terror network,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. “It cannot be contained, it must be defeated.... But it cannot be an American fight. And I think what the president has consistently said, which I agree with, is that we will support those who take the fight to ISIS.”

Senator Bernie Sanders sounded a similar note. “What we need to do is lead an international coalition which includes, very significantly, Muslim nations in that region are gonna have to fight and defend their way of life.”

Sanders said he agreed with Clinton except for “one area… I think she said something like, ‘The bulk of the responsibility is not ours.’ Well, in fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unraveled the region completely. And led to the rise of Al Qaeda and to ISIS.”

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who lags in the polls, criticized Clinton, saying the fight against ISIS “is America’s fight,” but then essentially agreed with what she and Sanders had said. “ISIS, make no mistake about it, is an evil in this world. ISIS has brought down a Russian airliner. ISIS has now attacked the western democracy in France. And we do have a role in this. Not solely ours. But we must work collaboratively with other nations.”  

The moderator, CBS-TV’s John Dickerson, tried to press Clinton about what mistakes or regrets she might have as a former secretary of state. She refused to say whether the Obama White House underestimated ISIS, avoided endorsing the term “radical Islam,” and defended her record as a New York senator helping lower Manhattan rebuild after the 9/11 attacks in 2001—which prompted another discussion of whether she is too close to Wall Street financial interests. Clinton said the Middle East has the world’s most “complex” problems and that any hope of progress means using all the tools at a president’s disposal: force, intelligence sharing, diplomacy, foreign aid, etc.

All of the Democratic candidates said the U.S. should take 65,000 or more refugees from Syria’s civil war after implementing careful screening measures. Most GOP candidates don’t want to admit any additional refugees from that war-torn region.  

Perhaps the most intriguing remark by Sanders about the U.S. defense establishment was that only 10 percent of a $600 billion Pentagon budget was being spent on “this enemy.” Much of it, he suggested, goes toward an outdated unnecessary nuclear arsenal that is useless to the task.

But on a day when the attention of Americans and much of Europe was on the proper response and strategy for dealing with barbarism in our times, the presidential candidates neither projected the doom and gloom the Republicans portrayed nor sketched out their principles for dealing with unanticipated extreme violence.

Instead, they were much more engaged when it came to stating their domestic prescriptions and then sparring over the fine print. Compared to the GOP, all three are mostly on the same page when it comes to the long list of reforms they say America needs: criminal justice reform, gun control, free or vastly lower college and university tuition, and controlling prescription drug costs.    

There were some dramatic moments, such as when Sanders said Clinton was too close to her Wall Street donors and that her finance industry reforms were lukewarm as a result, noting her lack of support for reinstating a Depression-era law, Glass-Steagall, which banned commercial banks from a range of risky investments. Clinton rejected that characterization and said her proposals would target more of the risky new investment strategies that caused the global economy to crash in 2008.   

Sanders has several strong applause lines, such as, “The business model of Wall Street is fraud” and saying he would raise corporate tax rates well above 50 percent, but not as high as they were in the 1950s when the top rates were 90 percent. “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to [former Republican president Dwight] Eisenhower.”

Sanders also said climate change was a factor in creating instability in regions where terrorism and civil war has taken hold, such as the Middle East. O’Malley’s comments, in contrast, tended to be a string of clichés. “There is no nation on the planet better able to adapt to this change than our nation,” he said, speaking of ISIS. “We must be able to work collaboratively with others. We must anticipate these threats before they happen. This is the new sort of challenge, the new sort of threat that does, in fact, require new thinking, fresh approaches and new leadership.”

Overall, the Democratic debate had an odd ring to it. On the most pressing issue of the day—how to deal with real evil in our times—they said little beyond that ISIS must be vanquished by all available means. That was not the “fortress America” mindset the Republican candidates displayed. Perhaps that’s because there is a Democrat in the White House, not a Republican like George W. Bush who launched a war of choice.


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