Democratic presidential candidates Martin OMalley, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) participate in the Democratic candidates debate on Jan. 17, 2016, in Charleston, S.C.
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The fourth debate between the candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in Charleston, S.C., Sunday night was an exciting affair if you had never seen or heard of, or had no familiarity with, the candidates. But if you are like most Americans who have any interest in politics, there was not much last night that happened that will change how you plan on voting.

If you’re a Republican, nothing that was said is going to change your mind. If you’re a Bernie Sanders supporter, or a Hillary Clinton supporter, your confidence in your candidate was restored. If you’re a Martin O’Malley supporter, your participation trophy will be in the mail shortly. So while no minds may have been changed, there were some new contours of the race that popped up that are going to play a major role in these final two weeks before the first primary.


1. Hillary Loves Obama

Clinton was hugging Obama so hard during last night’s debate, I thought Michelle was going to have to step in. Clinton, always concerned about a repeat of her 2008 loss to the surging Obama, went on the offensive last night against Sanders and did so from a perspective and mindset that you wouldn’t expect. Clinton actually attacked Sanders from the left, both on gun control and the Affordable Care Act.


Her first claim, that Sanders is soft on guns, is pretty difficult to back up. No one believes that Sanders is soft on guns just because he didn’t vote in favor of every piece of gun control legislation he saw in Congress, and it’s a stretch to argue that Sanders’ plans to improve the ACA amount to tearing it up.

Clinton, however, is not lying or even exaggerating when she points out that Sanders suggested that someone pose a primary challenge to President Obama when he was running for re-election in 2012. Her overall strategy, that she will continue Obama’s legacy and that Sanders will jeopardize everything in favor of his socialist utopia, may work in the primary season, but she’s underestimating one key factor: Many of the left-wing Democrats who vote in primaries agree with Sanders that Obama didn’t do enough for the progressive agenda. So Clinton’s superstrong backing of the sitting president may not win her as much enthusiastic support as she’d like.


2. There Is No Black Agenda

While a debate co-sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute isn’t explicitly a forum designed to address African-American needs, this was supposed to be a debate that focused on some key issues concerning African Americans. And generally, no one did it. While all of the candidates get credit for mentioning the shooting at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the killing of Walter Scott, both in South Carolina, they were thin on solutions.


No one specifically mentioned the importance of health care to the black community, or the importance of jobs to the black community. Clinton deserves some credit for criticizing Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan for his Flint debacle, which certainly has racial elements to it, but overall again, issues specifically dealing with the African-American community were ignored or generalized by the candidates.

3. The Moderators Continue to Disappoint

It has become somewhat of a cliché to attack moderators in this primary debate season, but some of that criticism is unfair. Trying to squeeze the truth and a straight answer out of one politician in a one-on-one interview is hard enough. Trying to get straight answers out of three or more is even more difficult. That being said, more pointed, specific and substantive questions could have made the debate more informative, if not more riveting.


There were too many “strategy” questions from moderator Lester Holt. Asking Sanders why the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Clinton over him or why he isn’t connecting with black people isn’t a policy question; it’s a strategy question, and ultimately those types of questions are irrelevant to a debate. The YouTube questions were worse.

While I understand the value of getting “regular people” to ask questions of candidates, asking, “How will you engage young voters?” was not going to elicit an actual policy response from anyone onstage. Every campaign is trying to engage young voters, so this question amounted to “Please tell me how you’ll pander to me in 2016.” A better question might have been, “What are you doing to make it easier for young people to vote?”


As for a question from YouTube participant Franchesca Ramsey about what the candidates would do about county prosecutors’ conflicts of interest in investigating cops, a president can’t do anything about local district attorneys; that is a state issue (what they can do is federally address police-union contracts, which protect cops from prosecution). So at best, Ramsey was going to get a stump-speech answer as opposed to an action that anyone could actually take.

With only two weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the vast majority of Democrats already know whether they’re “feeling the Bern” or on #TeamHillary anyway, so these debates aren’t driving the decisions in the way that they still do for Republicans. However, if the Democrats are going to host debates ostensibly about black issues and try to get diverse forums in which to field questions, the least they could do is give us a debate full of substance, instead of stump speeches bookended by campaign-strategy notes. 


Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.

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