By ALEX DRAGONE
Senior Staff Writer
Students gathered in the Levering Lounge on Tuesday night to watch the first Democratic presidential debate. The event was organized by the College Democrats and hosted in Levering by JHUnions.
A separate watching party event, organized by Johns Hopkins Students for Bernie Sanders, merged with the College Democrats watching party when the Sanders group had problems streaming the debate.
Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, former Secretary of State, New York Senator and First Lady Hillary Clinton, former Maryland Governor and Mayor of Baltimore Martin O’Malley, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Virginia Senator Jim Webb debated for over two hours in the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas about gun control, foreign military intervention and state surveillance among other issues.
Sanders, a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, was attacked by both Clinton and O’Malley on gun control. When asked whether Sanders had done enough to advance gun control, Clinton gave a blunt “No.” Sanders represents gun-friendly Vermont and makes the argument that the vast majority of Americans can agree on basic measures like universal background checks, but promoting more stringent methods of gun control, championed mainly by those in urban states and areas, serve to alienate voters and turn them against all methods of gun control.
O’Malley countered by saying Maryland, made up of both rural and urban areas, passed stringent gun control during his tenure as governor. Sanders touted his “D-” National Rifle Association (NRA) rating, while O’Malley said he earned an “F” rating.
Sanders is second in national polls behind Clinton, and he is leading Clinton in New Hampshire, the second primary in the cycle. A highlight of the debate came when he said the country had heard enough about Clinton’s “Damn emails,” prompting the two candidates to shake hands.
Webb earned an ‘A’ rating from the NRA and contended that China was the Nation’s most pressing strategic threat. When he declared he was a traditionalist Democrat, some students jokingly questioned whether he was referencing the Democratic Party’s support for Jim Crow segregation policies in the mid and early 20th century, and many students asked why the Senator was running for the Democratic nomination. He was praised for his refusal to condemn Sanders’ conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, in which Webb served.
Chafee was largely inconsequential during the debate. He drew laughter when he repeatedly referred to himself as a “Block of granite” in reference to his consistency on issues, despite starting his political career as a Republican then becoming an independent and finally a Democrat. When he attacked Clinton on the breach of trust created by the Secretary’s continuing scandal over her private email server, Clinton was asked by moderator Anderson Cooper whether she wanted to respond, to which she said “No.” The audiences in Las Vegas and Levering cheered and clapped.
Clinton, the frontrunner is national polls, was first asked by Cooper whether she would say anything to get elected. She later came under fire for her voting in support of military force against Iraq in 2002 that lead to the invasion in 2003, for her support for the air campaign against Libyan government forces in 2011, her support of arming Syrian rebels, her support for establishing a no-fly zone over Syria where Syrian and Russian military aircraft are currently active and her support for government mass surveillance programs. Despite these attacks, Clinton kept composed and focused during the debate.
O’Malley referenced his political career and touted his environmental plan. But he had no stand-out moments to raise his poll numbers, now hovering around one percent nationally.
Nitin Nainani, president of the College Republicans, said the debate was less exciting than the two Republican debates.
“Unlike the wide-open Republican debates, this one wasn’t as fluid or competitive,” Nainani said. “The candidates tried to not bring up their contrasts with President Obama. In the GOP debate, candidates tried to differentiate themselves from each other.”
Nainani said that Clinton acted competently during the debate, and Sanders pleased his base while not broadening his supporters. As Clinton is frontrunner, he said she won “by default.”
“This doesn’t change the calculus for the general election,” Nainani said. “The GOP has always been preparing to face Clinton in the general. Personally I think the most dangerous candidate to the GOP wasn’t here tonight,” Nainani said, referencing Vice President Joe Biden, about whom there has been much speculation as to whether he will join the race.
Sam Gottuso, president of the College Democrats, said the candidates disagreed enough to keep the debate lively.
“Most of the candidates agreed on the endpoint, they just disagreed on how to get there,” Gottuso said.
Gottuso said O’Malley performed well and, while it would not be enough to propel him to the nomination, it could make him an attractive vice presidential pick.
“I think this debate had more substance than the GOP debate,” Gottuso said. “Sanders and Clinton got to show specific plans, and that’s in part because there were less candidates on the stage than with the Republicans.”
Gottuso said the College Democrats are split on their preferred nominee, with maybe 60 percent supporting Sanders and 40 supporting Clinton.