By Amy Davidson
Of the fight against ISIS, Clinton said, “It cannot be an American fight, though American leadership is essential.” Credit Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Image
Hillary Clinton’s crucial misstep in the second Democratic debate, in Des Moines on Saturday, may have come about ten minutes in. The subject was Paris, which had been attacked the night before, with more than a hundred and twenty people dead. John Dickerson, the moderator, asked Clinton if the Obama Administration, in which Clinton served, had underestimated the Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for the attack. She answered by talking generally about the various means available to defeat the group, and then said, “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.” Then she repeated what sounded, intentionally or not, like a renunciation: “But this cannot be an American fight, although American leadership is essential.”
“But Secretary Clinton, the question’s about what—was ISIS underestimated?” Dickerson said, trying again. This time, Clinton responded by saying, first, that “we abided by the agreement that George W. Bush made with the Iraqis, to leave”—which is true, but not really responsive—and then, after acknowledging that the situation had “developed,” added, “But I don’t think that the United States has the bulk of the responsibility. I really put that on Assad and on the Iraqis and on the region itself.” There was a sensible point in there about not going in alone or pretending that America can solve everything. But Clinton had also laid out ammunition for her opponents, and the responses came from left, right, and center.
“John, I would—I would disagree with—with Secretary Clinton, respectfully, on this score,” Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, said, jumping in. “This actually is America’s fight.” O’Malley is not exactly what Donald Trump would call “a killer” (“No dollar too small,” he said in his closing statement, after reminding the audience of his Web site), but he knew an easy hit when he saw it. A few commercial breaks later, CBS’s “back soon” promotion was an abridged video of the exchange. It was one of those moments that will likely be clipped, repeated, and distorted beyond what Clinton deserves. (If only she’d slipped an “only” in there.) And yet, in a way, the stronger response came from Bernie Sanders, from another angle entirely.
“I think she said something like, ‘The bulk of the responsibility is not ours,’ ” Sanders said. “Well, in fact, I would argue that the disastrous invasion of Iraq, something that I strongly opposed, has unravelled the region completely. And led to the rise of Al Qaeda and to ISIS.” Clinton voted to authorize that war; he voted against it. Dickerson asked, “Are you making a direct link between her vote for that and what’s happening now for ISIS?”
“Oh, I don’t think any—I don’t think any sensible person would disagree that the invasion of Iraq led to the massive level of instability we are seeing right now,” Sanders said.
In other words, Clinton had managed, in a couple of sentences, to simultaneously open herself up to the charge that she sees ISIS as someone else’s war and that she rushes into wars too readily. Those notions feel paradoxical, and yet they both feed into a critique of Clinton as someone who does not always embrace responsibility. It did not help that she replied to Sanders not by acknowledging the specific disaster of Iraq but by saying that there had been big terrorist attacks before Iraq, too—under Reagan and “when my husband was President.” Perhaps “cannot be America’s fight” was an attempt to reassure non-interventionist primary voters, but she has favored more direct military involvement in Syria, and needs to better explain that she knows what the consequences might be, rather than occluding them. In that sense, the exchange touched on a fear that Clinton is not only hawkish but hawkish in a politically opportunistic way.
There is, and will be, quite enough politicking in this race related to the dilemmas laid bare by Paris. On Saturday, Donald Trump was at a rally in Texas, talking about how what Paris needed was more guns and fewer immigrants. He was sorry about the plight of Syrian refugees, he said, but America would be “crazy” to take more. Jeb Bush gave an interview to Hugh Hewitt, the conservative talk-show host, in which he combined a bouncing eagerness to get on a war footing (“This is not a law-enforcement operation”) with a garbled call to arms (“This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization, and we need to lead in this regard”). Rand Paul used Paris as a way of attacking Marco Rubio for being soft on immigration. Rubio released a video in which he explained that this is a “civilizational” fight rather than a “geopolitical” one, while sitting in a leather armchair in a shadowy space, as though the place for counterterrorism is and always will be an English gentlemen’s club. It can’t be helped; there is something about a crisis of this scale that makes politicians dream of Churchill.
That was the backdrop when the Democrats took the stage, at 9 P.M. They began with a moment of silence for the victims in Paris; all three were suitably solemn. Then came a request from Dickerson for each candidate to give a minute-long opening statement, “to share your thoughts about the attacks on Paris and lay out your vision for America.” Sanders went first and said that the attacks had left him “shocked and disgusted.” Paris got one more sentence in his opening—“Leading the world, this country will rid the planet of this barbarous group called ISIS.” Then he went straight to inequality and money in politics, ending on one of his signature phrases: “A handful of billionaires.” There were pre-debate reports that the Sanders campaign was not happy with CBS’s plans to reshape the opening around Paris; the sense among commentators beforehand was that it would play to all of Clinton’s strengths. It is puzzling that it did not.
And, again, there was the contrast with Sanders’s theatricality: in a discussion about the limitations of the phrase “radical Islam,” Clinton got caught up in the fine print, in a way that will likely leave her open to out-of-context quoting. Sanders basically said that he wasn’t so interested in labels, and then immediately railed, with greater passion, against organizations like ISIS that think “we should go back several thousand years,” to a time when there wasn’t even a Brooklyn.
Clinton’s answers on domestic policy were generally clearer, and more likely to serve her well in the general election—though here she was up against Sanders’s populism. (“It is not a radical idea to say that a single mom should be earning enough money to take care of her kids,” he said.) And yet it was in a discussion of a domestic issue that she gave what may have been her most discordant answer. Sanders had wondered why Wall Street figures and institutions would be among her biggest backers if they didn’t think they were getting something for their money—“I mean, you know, let’s not be naïve about it.” Clinton said that the answer was easy: “I represented New York on 9/11, when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”
Wall Street the street is, indeed, in Lower Manhattan. But Wall Street the industry is all over town, and in other towns, too. Some financial institutions were devastated, and lost many people. But the idea that the guys in the neighborhood, whom she, particularly, helped to their feet after the terrorists attacked, had just passed the hat out of gratitude was Giuliani-level 9/11 political exploitation. It felt disingenuous. And, after a night that Paris spent under siege, it felt wrong.