Last Night's Democratic Debate

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by Michael Sean Winters

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The Democratic Party presidential debates are a lot less entertaining than their GOP counterparts. Even when things get testy, and they got testy last night at several points, the whole tenor of the evening has a more substantial and serious feel to it whereas a GOP debate resembles a verbal version of professional wrestling.

For the life of me, I have no idea why the Democratic National Committee decided to schedule its debates on weekends when other popular shows are airing. That’s not exactly true. We all know the DNC did not want to do anything that would derail the Clinton coronation, and a major flub in a debate is the kind of thing that could result in a derailment. So, last night’s debate was opposite "Downton Abbey" and it will be interesting to see the ratings. The viewership of "Downton," affluent, white, and older, seemed to be the same people being targeted by the candidates in their performance although, let it be said, no one delivered a zinger with the panache that Maggie Smith delivers a zinger! Still, the foolishness of the DNC strategy is obvious. Hillary Clinton is so poised and even commanding during these debates, their fears that she might commit a gaffe that would derail her seem entirely misplaced.

Indeed, a case could be made that it is precisely such fears that could yet prove Clinton’s biggest obstacle. She is way too cautious and calibrated in an election cycle where spontaneity and authenticity are all the rage. As her husband said after the debate, Mrs. Clinton was the only candidate in either party’s debates who already looks presidential. But, lots and lots of people feel like the system, including what passes for "presidential," needs to be shaken up. It is a remarkable fact about Hillary Clinton as a candidate that she has a hard time closing the sale, and that fact is not due to a lack of poise or experience or sophistication.

Last night, Clinton’s approach to the primaries was on full display: She invokes the Obama legacy and promises to build on it, then contrasts all three Democratic candidates with their GOP counterparts. This was how she answered questions of both domestic and foreign policy all night long. Clearly, she does not want to alienate any of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters, and she also needs to try and hold the Obama coalition together if she hopes to win in the general election. But, there is something missing from her presentation: She lacks the moral language that her husband and President Obama used as candidates to great effect, she runs too quickly to the policy discussion, she does not frame her various proposals into a coherent whole, but itemizes them one-by-one as needed, and mostly in response to Sen. Sanders more comprehensive framing of the issues. Note: Sanders’ framing is comprehensive but, like Clinton’s, it lacks coherence. For him, everything seems to be a consequence of bad campaign finance laws. Unfortunately, the people who decide for whom to vote based on the candidates’ positions on campaign finance were all watching "Downton."

The shape of the discussion within the Democratic Party this year has largely been set by Sanders: Democrats want a more populist economic policy, they are tired of stagnant wages, and they are angry at the degree to which Democratic pols in DC are subservient to the financial sector. It is difficult for Clinton, who represented Wall Street in the Senate and whose husband hired Robert Rubin to be his Secretary of the Treasury, to make the case that she, too, will put the fear of God into Wall Street executives and fundamentally reshape the economy. But, it is also difficult for Sanders to fill that role because it is difficult to imagine him winning a general election. He scored against Clinton last night on the issue of her taking speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, a charge to which she offered no response, but he has yet to demonstrate that the average American is ready to vote for a self-described socialist.

This is what was frustrating about last night’s debate. The economic issues are obviously consequential, and the differences between the candidates are real. But, so much of the discussion focuses on pigmy proxies for the foundational issues. They discussed campaign donations, and Super PACS, and Dodd-Frank, and Goldman Sachs, but no one on the stage has said, "Why do our economic rules emphasize the needs of shareholders over the needs of workers?" No one has proposed lowering the corporate tax rate for companies that pay their CEOs no more than 100 times what the firm’s lowest paid workers receive, but leaving it where it is for companies that routinely pay their CEOs exorbitant sums while barely paying their workers a living wage. Even when Sanders discusses health care, and his desire to move to a single payer system, he does not make a moral argument but points to the fact that other countries do it this way. And, no one availed themselves of the many biblical quotes to make the case for economic and social justice. In short, there is no moral narrative, no moral framework, to the discussion and so it all seems disjointed.

The reason this is important is that I think Team Clinton is operating on a fundamental misunderstanding about the electorate. They are keeping their eye on the general election and the large, and growing, number of Independent voters, which suggests the campaign should emphasize the candidate displaying a combination of moderation and competence. But, Independent voters are not necessarily moderate. Many of them are low-information voters, and they are susceptible to the kind of populist rhetoric coming from the GOP. They are not moderate so much as they are disengaged. Maybe Clinton’s professionalism and experience will reassure them, but her inability to show some real passion about the issues they care about will have the opposite effect.

The voting starts in a couple of weeks and Clinton needs to win in Iowa badly, Can she close the sale? Can the Sanders’ insurgency pull of this year what then-Sen. Barack Obama pulled off in 2008? At the end of the day, and certainly at the end of last night’s debate, Clinton remains in the driver’s seat. The entire tenor of the campaign has been largely set by Sanders, but Sanders is no Obama. He is not determined to be president the way Obama was in 2008. To become president, you have to really want it, and there is no one on the planet who wants it more than Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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