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14 October 2015,

U.S. Election: Democratic debate more substantive

The U.S. presidential election saw its first Democratic debate of the season in Las Vegas on 13 October. While there were five candidates on stage, only two came out strong. Joe Biden, too, can very well say goodbye to his candidacy.

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Democratic Debate Podcast with Neelam Deo


Ashna Contractor (AC): Hello and welcome to this Gateway House podcast. I’m Ashna Contractor and with me today in the studio is Ambassador Neelam Deo, Director at Gateway House. Neelam, yesterday the Democratic party had their first Presidential debate, held in Las Vegas. This comes nearly two months after the Republican debate. The candidates were Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Lincoln Chafee, Martin O’Malley and Jim Webb. We did a podcast about the Republican debate after that took place as well. So my first question is, how do you think this debate compared to the Republican debates that have happened?

Neelam Deo (ND): Well the first obvious difference, of course, was the sheer numbers. There were more than 15 candidates on the Republican side, so the debate had to be carried out in two separate stages. Here you have 5 candidates, and even of these 5, really only two are serious candidates. Therefore they were able to discuss issues substantively rather than just attacking each other as the Republicans did, or attacking the Republicans, who had spent their debate attacking the Democratic President or the Democratic lead in this debate, which is Hillary Clinton. So this debate was more substantive. It was about the issues, not personalities. And it was important to note that all the Democrats were respectful of President Obama’s policies, including his foreign policy. Whereas the Republicans had spent all their time railing against the establishment and trying to project themselves as outsiders, and as if any administrative experience was to be discounted.

AC: Ok, so getting into the issues that the candidates talked about. On the domestic front they spoke about gun control, affirmative action, immigration reform, income inequality – all those issues. So how do you think the candidates fared on all those topics? What was your take on it?

ND: I think that there was broad agreement on most of the issues. Obviously there were differences in the nuances. One of the most surprising was that of these 5 candidates, it was Bernie Sanders who had been the most supportive in his votes on gun ownership. He tried to explain it as a fact that concerns the rural America- like the state of Vermont from which he comes. Whereas all of the others expressed a real revulsion at the kind of killings- especially of students, young people- that takes place frequently in the United States. On issues such as affirmative action, everybody came out quite passionate in terms of clarifying that of course black lives matter- which is the hashtag for a whole campaign. And they did say that affirmative action should be available for the African American community, considering its history in America, which includes slavery. There was less agreement on whether this kind of affirmative action should be made available for any other racial groups. But oddly enough, there was no reference to Native Americans- who were even worse off as compared to African Americans- and who had been practically decimated even in numbers and certainly their cultures have been more or less destroyed.

We also had some discussion on immigration. Most of the Democratic candidates recalled that they were themselves immigrants- as is everybody in America except the Native Americans, who are not a feature in their political discourse- and were in fact supportive of a path to citizenship. This is of course a pitch for the Hispanic vote, but also a serious and sympathetic position on a major issue in a country which is supposed to have approximately 11 million undocumented aliens. Again, very different from the kind of hostile positioning that the Republican candidates take.

AC: So moving on to the foreign policy part of the discussion- they spoke about the Syrian refugee crisis, Russia. So what were some of your takeaways on the foreign policy discussions that the candidates had?

ND: I think it was noticeable that they praised the cautious, measured position that America has taken under President Obama. None of them wanted to commit to troops on the ground. But they did want more intervention. But this intervention is always projected as something that somebody else will do- the regional countries, the Arabs, the Europeans- but not themselves. Even though, as it happens, it is the United States of America which is leading the bombing in Syria, which is supposedly a campaign against ISIS, the Islamic State, but in fact of course is happening in the one third of Syria that is controlled by ISIS. A lot of hostility was expressed against Russia and personally against President Putin. No very constructive postures on the problem in Ukraine, which of course is what concerns the European countries the most. And no effort to acknowledge or accommodate any interests that Russia may feel it has either in the Ukraine or in the Middle East.

AC: So also the US Presidential elections are something that every country has their eyes on, to a certain extent. So from the Indian point of view, what do you think were some of the foreign policy discussions that were of concern to us, or of particular interest to us?

ND: I think the whole discussion on the Middle East, the Islamic State, fundamentalism, terrorism- these are issues of great concern to us. India has major interests in the Middle East. So whether it’s energy security, whether it is the security of the seven million expat Indians who work there, the funds that they send home and of course our religious and historic relations with the countries of the region. As well as the sensitivities of our own Muslim population. There was no actual addressing the issue of how to deal with Islamic…. With jihadism. And it was unfortunate that there was no real discussion of Afghanistan, which of course is on the doorstep of India. The discussion of Russia was fairly hostile, as we already noted. But it was interesting that only former Senator Jim Webb actually referred to China as the long-term threat to the United States. The one other issue which was referred to, but really only in the domestic American context- which is of great interest to India as well- was the recently concluded TPP, the trade agreement. They all said that they didn’t actually support the agreement, and it’s a fact that in the Congress, the Democrats don’t support it, whereas many Republicans do. And especially Senator Clinton, who of course had been the real cheerleader for this agreement when she was the Secretary of State, tried to walk back from it because she said that there were features in it which would not satisfy the poorest of Americans. But from our point of view, a major trade agreement which encompasses most of the Asian countries, but doesn’t include India, is a matter of interest.

AC: Ok. And as you mentioned in the beginning, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are really the frontrunners of the party right now. So what did you think of their performance? Do you think anything is going to change in terms of their standing?

ND: I’d say they were pretty even. There was a sense that Mrs. Clinton was very much on top of the debate, in control of the issues, how they were formulated, she was definitely more fluent when they were discussing foreign policy. But Bernie Sanders was much more passionate on the domestic issues. And we need to note that he’s the one that set the terms of this debate on domestic issues, by constantly referring to the inequality, to the fact that legislation, and Congress particularly, responds to big money. He’s the only candidate that doesn’t have a super pack. He talked about campaign finance reform- the others didn’t. But there was talk of the reform of the taxation system, which also favors billionaires, as they put it. So I would say that he set the tone for the issues and all of them spoke about inequality. But she certainly was ahead in terms of the foreign policy discussion.

AC: So how do you think some of the Republican candidates were viewing this debate?

ND: I would say that Donald Trump was like Banquo’s ghost. He wasn’t there, but everybody was looking at him over their shoulder. There were some references to the Republicans, to the fact that Hillary Clinton projected herself as the one candidate who can be elected against a Republican challenger of the Donald Trump sort. So I think the Republicans will have noticed that inequality is their big issue and taxation, campaign finance reform, the whole system as the Democrats say is gamed against the middle classes and the poor. And I think that the Republicans will also sharpen their positions on this.

AC: And finally, who do you think stood out as the winner from the debate?

ND: I’d say that Hillary Clinton will probably stay ahead in the polls, especially those polls taken from Democratic voters. Overall, she may still be ahead in terms of who is likely to win against a Republican. But I think it is really important to remember that she has picked up the language and the framing of issues from Bernie Sanders. So because inequality has become a global concern, we may just be surprised at the kind of support that he is able to generate.

AC: Great, thank you Neelam for those insights. We will be following the U.S. Presidential elections closely over the next couple of months. You can tune in to hear more podcasts. You can find us on Soundcloud, iTunes and Twitter. Leave your comments below and we will be happy to respond to them.

Hosted by Ashna Contractor, Outreach Associate, Gateway House


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