The opening statements at last night’s Democratic presidential debate featured both candidates playing to type: Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a jeremiad against the influence of money in politics and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a more visionary, upbeat pitch, firmly focused on the future. These are both tropes that go back to the first decades of English settlement in the Western Hemisphere, with Sanders in the role of Cotton Mather and Clinton in the role of John Winthrop.
Both candidates had good moments and not-so-good moments, especially on the issue that is at the center of Sanders’ campaign, the influence of money and, specifically, Wall Street. CNN’s Dana Bash asked Sanders to name a particular piece of legislation about which he could discern Clinton’s actions being influenced by her campaign contributors. When he failed to do so, Clinton shot back: “He can’t come up with an example because there is no example.” Moments later, however, Clinton said she had stood up to Wall Street, and Sanders had his best moment of the night: “Secretary Clinton called them out? Oh, my goodness, they must have been very upset by this.” It was the most sarcastic moment in any of their debates, and was indicative of the nastiness of the evening overall. Compared to the GOP, however, it was kids’ stuff.
The issue of guns continues to stalk the Sanders campaign in states with large, urban populations. Clinton’s best line of the night came when she challenged him for supporting legislation that exempted gun manufacturers from criminal liability, the only industry in America to enjoy just an exemption. “We hear a lot about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street,” Clinton said. “What about the greed and recklessness of the gun manufacturers and dealers.” Clinton noted, rightly, that the manufacturers of toy guns are more at risk for liability suits than the manufacturers of real guns. Sanders struggled to find a come back. He might have at least pointed out that the toy gun manufacturers face liability when their products do not perform as promised, while the problem with real guns is when they do perform as promised. The liability issue is a bit fake. But, he didn’t and that round went overwhelmingly to Clinton.
Sen. Sanders call for a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute received a lot of attention. It took some guts to say this days before an election in New York, although Sanders was appealing to that part of the hard left which has become enamored of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. And, Clinton should have noted, but did not, that his call for even-handedness came in a discussion about Gaza. Does Sanders really think the U.S. government should be even-handed between the freely elected government of Israel and Hamas?
As interesting as what they did discuss, I found it remarkable that there was not a single question about trade issues and Sanders only found limited opportunities to bring the subject up. Again, both candidates had a lot to say about making college more affordable but absolutely nothing to say about the kids who do not go to college. And, Clinton called attention to the fact that in all their debates there had not been a question about reproductive rights and, regrettably, both candidates had an “abortion-palooza” moment on the stage. Clinton scored heavily by claiming the mantle of a champion of “New York Values,” a phrase made famous by Sen. Ted Cruz’s derogatory remarks about the same.
I don’t understand Sen. Sanders. Now, when it is virtually impossible for him to catch up to and overtake the lead in delegates that Secretary Clinton has amassed, now he decided to get nasty. He has achieved more, by his own admission, than he thought possible. He has reminded Clinton and the entire Democratic Party what the core value of the party is, fighting the moneyed interest on behalf of other important social goods. He is in a position to exert enormous influence over Clinton. Why get nasty now? Has he drunk his own Kool-aid? Yes, he has won a string of small states, mostly caucuses, in which a few thousand people voted. His win in Wisconsin was impressive. The fact that he does better in head-to-head polls against the GOP candidates compared to Clinton is meaningless: He has not been the target of sustained negative ads. In fact, his campaign was effectively over when the results from Super Tuesday came in and it takes a lot of Kool-aid to believe otherwise. He can stay in the race as long as he wants, but he should tone it down when attacking Clinton.
I also do not understand Secretary Clinton. She wishes Sanders would go away, but she will need his supporters in the fall. Yes, in 2008, the party unified after a more contentious primary behind Barack Obama, but he was the outsider with the new voters, and of course the establishment got behind him. This year, she is the establishment candidate and it will take more effort to get the new voters, all ginned up and feeling “the Bern” to turn out in November. Instead of going tit for tat with Sanders, she should be lavishing him with praise, thanking him for being such an articulate spokesperson for values they both share, that all Democrats share, and which she believes she is best able to see enacted into real policy changes that will benefit the American people. Graciousness is the best way to make Sanders appear to have fulfilled, his role but point out that being the nominee is not his role.
All in all, the advantage goes to Clinton. Sanders is the one who needs to upset the trajectory of the campaign, and his performance last night only succeeded in giving those who already like him good reasons to continue supporting him. He did not break new ground and nothing he said is likely to provide the kinds of inroads to minority voters he desperately needs. Clinton is as poised as punch in these debates, even if it is sometimes uncomfortable to watch the rhetorical lengths to which she will go to avoid admitting a mistake or taking responsibility for a policy that went awry. I am just glad it is the last debate because the last the Democrats need right now is to get nastier. Clinton will win the nomination, to be sure, but Sen. Sanders can become an even greater force in the Democratic party’s future if he directs some of his fundraising clout to key congressional and Senate candidates. He can’t overtake Clinton’s lead in delegates. He can make himself the first or second person she has to call about any economic policy if she wins the White House. The Constitution gives the president the power of the veto, but if Sanders plays his cards right in the next few weeks, he could have effective veto power over a President Clinton’s economic policy. That is a worthy and attainable goal. He should not compromise it with acrimony.