The 2016 Democratic presidential field is fairly staid and uncontroversial compared to the Donald Trump-led freakshow on the Republican side, and this presents something of a problem for CNN, the host of this evening’s Democratic debate. The network coasted to ratings gold in September’s GOP debate, which featured big personalities sniping at one another and gamely trying to get noticed by incrementally sinking deeper into madness. CNN’s strategy for that debate was simple: goad the candidates into fighting each other; repeat as necessary. It made for an awful debate, but people watched, so the network will count it as a win.
CNN can’t really repeat that strategy this time around – there are far fewer Democratic candidates, and thus far they haven’t demonstrated any real affinity for destroying one another’s reputations. So CNN has resigned itself to the lack of spectacle and will, according to the New York Times, glumly resort to talking about policy:
But in interviews, CNN executives and anchors said they planned to take advantage of the smaller, more collegial field to force the Democratic candidates to address their previous statements and current positions – which are sometimes in conflict – even as they also encourage them to confront one another.
The focus will obviously be on Hillary Clinton, since she’s the frontrunner and she has some incongruences to hammer out. And it’s a sure bet that the majority of the debate will deal with economic issues, given the primary’s larger focus on economic inequality and the fact that Bernie Sanders’ surge has been powered by his own relentless hammering on trade, wages, and jobs. But with Hillary tacking leftward on the economy, there isn’t really a huge amount of daylight between her and the rest of the field on those issues. The one area where candidates can really distinguish themselves from the frontrunner – and where CNN can get some of the conflict they so desire – is foreign policy.
Candidates like Sanders and Martin O’Malley are undoubtedly aware that Cinton’s hawkishness on the world stage was what helped bring her last presidential campaign down, and she hasn’t really done much to change her national security posture since then. In just the last couple of weeks, she announced her support for a no-fly zone over Syria as a response to Russia’s intervention in that country’s interminable civil war. That puts her at odds with the Obama White House, but squarely in line with most of the Republican presidential field. Candidates like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have even gone so far as to say they’ll risk war with Russia to defend whatever interests they believe the U.S. has in the Syrian conflict. CNN should press Clinton on what her vision for a no-fly zone would entail (they typically require the destruction of ground-based air defenses) and how far she’d be willing to go in enforcing it.
It’s also an opportunity for Sanders and O’Malley. They’ve both already come out against a no-fly zone over Syria, so the conditions for a real debate are already there. But more importantly, they have a chance to start a broader debate within the Democratic Party as to what its foreign policy should be in the post-Obama era. Some Democrats, like Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, have already started this conversation in response to the Obama administration’s ineffective and disastrous policies in places like Yemen. As Murphy wrote earlier this year, a strong, progressive stance should prioritize “a new humility to our foreign policy, with less emphasis on short-term influencers like military intervention and aid, and more effort spent trying to address the root causes of conflict.”
A Democratic candidate who was looking to distinguish himself from the foreign policy status quo and force a reexamination the party’s national security priorities could point to Iraq, Yemen, and now Syria and ask “is this really what we want our foreign policy to look like?” Tonight’s CNN debate would be an ideal place to start that discussion.