Last night’s Democratic presidential debate was the first to feature only former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and the absence of Gov. Martin O’Malley meant that we knew the two contenders would need to go right at each other. They did not disappoint and the principal winners of the evening were Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow who let them go at it. For the first half hour of the evening, you barely knew the moderators were there and, throughout the evening, they spent far fewer words than previous moderators. Kudos to them.
Kudos, too, to both candidates. If you like Mrs. Clinton, you would have come away satisfied in your choice. If you like Sen. Sanders, there was nothing to make you question your choice. But, the differences between the two were on full display.
Sen. Sanders makes the case that our economy is rigged and that those who benefit from that rigging are successfully trying to translate their economic power into political power, and he makes it as strongly as the case can be made. On most of the questions on domestic policy, he returns to that theme and it certainly resonates with young people and with working class voters. He scores well when he notes that he does not have a SuperPAC and does not take money from Wall Street, and his finest moment in the night when he asked why no bankers on Wall Street had criminal records, even though they almost routinely pay huge fines for their misdeeds, but a fifteen year old who buys some pot does get a criminal record.
But, as I have noted previously, Sanders consistently fails to frame the case in the kind of moral language that would invite others to agree with him. On both the issue of free college and of universal health care, he continues to point out that the U.S. is the only major industrialized country that does not provide them, but that is not a moral argument. It also overlooks the fact that most Americans don’t want to be like the French. I suppose he and his team think that his recitation of the case has got him this far, so why switch? But, I do not see how he grows his support without making an argument in which words like justice and human dignity are invoked, and in which personal stories are interjected to dramatize the human cost of our failure to have universal health insurance. His argument is flinty, but it does not resonate beyond the base.
Similarly, Sanders’ call for a “revolution” misreads the temper of the American people. Young people, who may not remember or may not have learned about the grim, often evil, results of most 20th century revolutions, get excited by such language. Finally, they think, we can have the kind of experience our parents had in the 60s. But, it is not the 60s and that decade not only brought us some positive things, like the civil rights movement and the legislation that flowed from it, but also some negative things, like the GOP’s southern strategy. I have read enough Burke to be suspicious, per se, of the word revolution, but most people who have never read Burke know that revolutions often miscarry, they disrupt without guaranteeing new, better stabilities. There is a clear disconnect between Sanders' explanation of his correct vote against the Iraq War and his call for domestic revolution at home.
Indeed, it is on foreign policy that Sanders seems most out of his league. Even when he knows he is on the right, better to say correct, side of an issue, as in the 2002 Iraq War vote, he does not press home his advantage. The fact he does not seem comfortable on foreign policy issues may not hurt him in the primaries but it could crush him in a general election.
Secretary Clinton had one of her best nights so far. She knows she is on the defensive when it comes to her ties to Wall Street, and she pushed back hard, calling on Sanders to “end the artful smear” that her views and her votes were bought and paid for. Some in the audience booed but, frankly, I think the line worked very well in pointing out that Sanders is a pol, not a saint, and of course he has been casting innuendoes her way. More importantly, she showed her strongest character trait, her toughness and combativeness. She wasn’t going to take his charge lying down. It was tense on the stage, but if that exchange had been a skating competition, she would have won the technical difficulty category and he would have won on style points. Indeed, when Sanders next took the microphone, he did not go after Clinton directly, a clear sign that she won the moment if not the message.
Clinton’s weaknesses were also apparent. She continually runs to “I have a plan” language that her team thinks works, but it didn’t work in 2008 and I am not sure it works now. When she said “we have a vigorous agreement here” she sounded thoroughly inauthentic. She did a poor job explaining her flip-flop on the Trans-Pacific Trade deal, failing to mention a single item in the final agreement that might have tipped the balance and caused her to oppose it. Most unbelievably, having been asked about the speaking fees she received from Goldman Sachs the night before at a CNN town hall, she and her team failed to come up with a good answer. They had twenty-four hours. I would have at least used the old Billy Sunday line, “The Devil has had that money long enough.” But, really, she needs to acknowledge that speaking fees are obscene for people of her stature, and admit that this is precisely the kind of obscenity that makes people think she does not understand or care about their situation.
This leads to my last point. At the CNN town hall on Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton had a truly authentic moment when she acknowledged that politics is work for her and compared herself in this regard to her husband “who was such a natural.” Indeed he was a natural. He may or may not have cared about the fates of the people he encountered, but he made them feel that he did. She lacks his virtuosity in this regard, as do most politicians. If I had been coaching her for last night’s debate, I would have combined the two items, the speaking fees and her lack of natural gifts, and face the unreality of political life head on. “Look,” she might have said, “It is crazy that companies and organizations pay people like me such exorbitant speaking fees. But, it is all part of the craziness of politics in a media age. I care just as much about working class families as my husband did, but he had a knack for 'feeling people’s pain' in public in a way that I don’t. I feel the pain too. Many nights, at the kitchen table in Arkansas and then at the White House, we should share stories about the plight of the people we had met that day. But, Bill could demonstrate empathy in public and on cue in a way most of us can’t. I don’t think that makes him a better person or a better president, but it sure made him a better politician. So, there is a lot about our lives in this political life that is strange for most people.”
I will discuss this later next week, when we have the results from New Hampshire. But, Clinton seems to me to be making a virtue of necessity, admitting that she is prosaic and making the case that we need a prosaic president. Sanders continues to inspire but Democrats were inspired by Obama in 2008 and even with a Democratic House and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, he could not pass some of the things Sanders thinks he can accomplish. Inspiration only gets you so far seems to be the Clinton campaign theme, and there is no telling if it will work, but it is the truth, and Democrats are well advised to acknowledge it sooner rather than later.