Last Night's Dem Debate in Wisconsin

by Michael Sean Winters

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If you entered last night’s Democratic debate leaning towards former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, you came away with plenty of reasons to justify your choice. If you entered leaning towards Sen. Bernie Sanders, you also received plenty to confirm your selection. Both candidates, in a largely civil debate, were true to form with Clinton calibrating her message more substantially as the nominating contest turns to a nationwide audience.

Sen. Sanders is an amazingly disciplined politician and he rarely strays from his core message: Our political system and our economic system are both rigged to the benefit of the richest Americans, and especially Wall Street financiers, and only a political revolution in which millions of Americans rise up and demand change will fix it. Last night, in his opening remarks, he added the need for criminal justice reform to his core message, doubtlessly a nod to minority voters who loom large in the next round of primaries.

When Clinton responded that while she may take money from Wall Street, as did President Obama, neither of them ever took a stance on an issue on account of those contributions. This provided Sanders with his best moment all night: “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” he said. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it. They want to throw money around.”

Sanders is right that the economy is rigged but he is very unspecific about how to do things differently and he rarely points to specific effects of Wall Street’s political largesse. I hereby make my two contributions to the Sanders campaign: First, talk about Puerto Rico. The U.S. Treasury Department could be playing hardball with the island’s creditors, especially the hedge funds, and defending the island’s population, especially its poor people. They could, as Treasury Hank Paulson did with Shearson Lehmann, make a strong suggestion to the hedge funds that they take a haircut and, if they decline, point out that there are SEC and FBI agents outside with a few questions. Second, read Angus Sibley’s book “Catholic Economics” which gives specific examples of how the system is rigged, why it is destructive, and points towards a better way. At least, finally, at one point, he used the word “moral” to describe his understanding of government’s obligations to the citizenry.

Clinton’s core argument for her candidacy shifted away from her resume last night. That message had not worked very well in Iowa or New Hampshire, which is no surprise, because a resume message focuses on the candidate, not the electorate, and on the past, not the future. Clinton’s opening was far more future-oriented and throughout the night she spent less time talking about her past and more time addressing people’s problems.

Clinton lacks the unitary message of Sanders, but she sought to turn that into a strength in her close: “I’m not a single-issue candidate and I don’t believe we live in a single-issue country,” she said. This concluded a riff, articulated in both her opening and closing statements and touched on throughout the night, that there are many varieties of inequality in America today, not just economic ones, and that she would be fighting against every affront to justice, against racism, sexism, and discrimination against the LGBT community. She had done this in earlier debates, but her presentation was both more crisp and more fluid last night than previously, and therefore in starker contrast with Sanders.

Both candidates mishandled a question about the size and scope of government. Clinton said she understood that many people were skeptical of government, then looking at Sanders, she said, “That is why we shouldn’t make promises we can’t keep.” It was a good line. Sanders pointed to some obvious outstanding national needs that only government can address: “Who denies we have a crumbling infrastructure?” he asked. What was missing from both responses was any tip of the hat to the importance of civil society. It would have cost them nothing to have said, “Look, government can’t do everything, and we don’t want government doing everything. We need churches and unions and community organizations, all working together, and with the government as a partner, not an impediment, to address some of the most entrenched problems in this country from the scourge of homelessness to the shocking increase in drug addiction.”

On the question of paying for college, both candidates drew distinctions between their approaches, but neither candidate really addressed that section of the electorate that will not be going to college, no matter how cheap it is. And, when Sanders charged the Republicans with being hypocrites about the scope of government, because they oppose abortion rights, one of the moderators should have pointed out that the hypocrisy charge works both ways.

On immigration, you would have thought one of the candidates would have mentioned Pope Francis seeing as he left Rome this morning for Mexico and will conclude with a Mass at the U.S. border. Alas, the pope people love is not on the radar screen of most Democratic speechwriters and policy wonks.

The strangest moment in the debate came when Sen. Sanders chastised Clinton for citing Henry Kissinger’s assessment of her time as Secretary of State. I had thought it odd that Clinton noted this in a previous debate, not just because Kissinger is not exactly the kind of reference a Democrat seeks, but because it dated her. Why would Sanders date himself be bringing it up? Do the millennials who fill his rallies even know who Kissinger is?  

When discussing criminal justice reform and foreign policy, Clinton’s fluency far outshone Sanders, giving substance to her claim to be more than a single-issue candidate. She expanded the discussion of criminal justice to note other forms of injustice, from housing to employment, that minority communities face. And, she tied herself to Obama, especially in the closing moments when she threw some of Sanders’ criticisms of the president back in his teeth. Sanders looked defensive and off his game as the debate closed.

But, the night exposed also what seems to me to be a central problem for Clinton. In 2008, her campaign was stalked by her Iraq War vote, and in 2008, the Iraq War was still a potent campaign issue. Now, having been Secretary of State, foreign policy is obviously her strength on a debate stage, but most Democrats do not seem to care so much about those issues. And, now as in 2008, she faces an inspirational candidate, which places her in the role of arguing “No, we can’t.” She also did nothing last night that would help her overcome the reservations people have about her trustworthiness: She had no self-deprecatory moments, indeed she stuck to her policy briefs and shared very little about herself that would humanize her in the eyes of voters.

I have no idea whether Sanders’ performance will improve his poll numbers nationally and especially with minority voters. I suppose he is going to stick with his core message because it has brought him this far. Clinton is better, much better, when she is not reminiscing about the good old days when she was earning battle scars from fights with the GOP. I think this contest is going to go on all the way until June.




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