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Debate showed differences between parties

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley appeared in a debate Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Seated at the table are debate moderators Martha Raddatz, left, and David Muir, of ABC News.
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley appeared in a debate Saturday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. Seated at the table are debate moderators Martha Raddatz, left, and David Muir, of ABC News.Jim Cole/Associated Press

Much of the commentary and analysis from Saturday night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire will undoubtedly focus on the questions of national security and terrorism. They were after all the focal point of questions from ABC's moderators.

But for me the more telling moment came in the responses of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Senator Bernie Sanders, and former Governor Martin O'Malley to a question on the heroin epidemic that is devastating communities in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and across the country. Unlike ISIS, the situation in Syria, or the threat of terrorism — this is an issue that actually endangers the lives of American citizens.

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Sanders started off by making the incredibly important point — and one all too rarely heard in political debates — that "addiction is a disease, not a criminal activity" and should be treated as such.

Clinton went next. She called more resources for "programs and facilities, so when somebody is ready to get help, there's a place for them to go," and a requirement that police officers carry Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose.

Finally, O'Malley spoke of dealing with heroin addiction in Maryland and about the importance of doing something the first time someone shows up at a hospital because of addition. "That very first time they show up with a near miss, we should be intervening there," he said.

I mention this rather innocuous exchange because it provides such a clear contrast between the the Democratic and Republican debates — and the state of the two parties. The GOP exchanges have largely been fact-free events filled with platitudes, fear-mongering, and simplistic, sloganeering solutions to complicated policy problems.

The Democratic candidates, on the other hand, had specific proposals and policy ideas, even on a subject that hardly falls among the top 10 policy issues likely to be asked of a presidential candidate. It was indicative, of the tone and tenor of last night's debate — one in which all three candidates not only shined, but also showed the depth of their policy knowledge.

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Indeed, what was perhaps so striking about Saturday night is that every candidate did well. O'Malley was feisty and substantive and did a nice job of differentiating himself from the other two candidates. Sanders clearly struggles on national security. His attempts to distinguish himself from Clinton largely revolved around the fact that he opposed the Iraq War and she supported it. Nonetheless, when the questions are in his wheelhouse, i.e. income inequality, Sanders can be incredibly effective — as he brings the kind of righteous anger and passion to the issue that Clinton cannot hope to match.

Still, Clinton as usual shined. The Democratic National Committee has come under a great deal of criticism for scheduling debates when so few people will watch. The idea seems to be that by doing so it makes it harder for Clinton's opponents to get any traction against her. But the committee is missing an opportunity to show off its frontrunner. Clinton may not have the pure political skill of President Obama. She may not be as effective a communicator as Ronald Reagan. But she's pretty good at politics.

At one point, after O'Malley went after Clinton for her Wall Street connections, she immediately hit back by pointing out that O'Malley had no problem raising money from financial executives when he was head of the Democratic Governor's Association. Clinton was of course trying to deflect attention from her own links, but that she had memorized a response to an attack line from a guy polling at 5 percent — and wielded it so effectively — is a compelling reminder of how well prepared she is for these debates.

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Clinton nimbly joustd with her opponents, parried with the moderators, and clearly and effectively recited her five-point plans. Compare that with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump — who doesn't know what the nuclear triad is and offhandedly suggests committing war crimes in Syria — and you really do understand the fundamental difference between the two parties. Or compare the meaty substance of Sanders and O'Malley with a Ben Carson word salad or a Ted Cruz platitude-fest.

One party has candidates that are actually prepared for the challenges of the job and who've thought about what their priorities would be as president.

The other does not.


Michael A. Cohen's column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.