Dem Debate Recap: Fascism, Fusion, and Bed Bugs

DemDebate1There were some marked similarities between Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate (which you can watch here but why bother when we did it for you?) and last week’s GOP dustup. Both took place on shiny red, white and blue festooned stages in South Carolina with enthusiastic live audiences; both had two moderators; and both featured at least one candidate whose perseverance in the race is kind of delusional. There were also some differences: With only three in the race each of the Democratic candidates had about double the individual airtime on average; the Dem format included the precious if pointless distraction of questions posed by “YouTube stars”(no, not cats or babies, just a few hand-picked fresh-faced millennial liberals); and last night there were decidedly fewer promises to solve America’s problems by arming ourselves to the teeth and carpet bombing anything that moves.

Let’s go to the highlights…

8:05 Responding to an opening question about priorities in the first 100 days of their administrations, the three candidates collectively hit jobs, wages, health care, equal pay, the decline of the middle class, voting rights, climate change, labor rights, immigration. Whew … that’s a mighty busy 100 days. No wonder they’ll have no time to drop bombs. Martin O’Malley (guy on the left with the polka dot tie) out of the gate promises a “100% clean electric energy grid” by the year 2050. I want in on that grid! Oh wait I’ll probably be dead. Cancel that want in.

8:10 We go right to guns. Hillary Clinton has been coming at this issue hard in recent days, using Bernie Sanders’ past votes to open up some daylight between them. Moderator Lester Holt tries to pin Sanders down on whether he is backing off prior support for a liability shield for the gun business. A well-prepared Clinton puts on her grim face and responds with a litany of the implications of Sanders’ votes for the presence of guns in lots of public contexts. Although Sanders has been responding on this for several days, as he does here, with a boast that his voting record gets a D-minus from the NRA, his handling of this issue has been and remains clumsy. His jumbled mix of defensiveness and nuance doesn’t play well. Holt’s follow-up — “but you did change your position, right?” – shows that Sanders is dancing on guns, and it turns out he’s not a very good dancer.

8:14 On crime and violence we get a pretty clear illustration of why Sanders turned out to be more of a problem for Clinton than her campaign anticipated. Clinton uses the passive voice: “There needs to be a concerted effort” to deal with racism in the justice system. Sanders is far more direct: “We have a criminal justice system that is broken.” It’s not clear that he has better concrete ideas on what to do about this, but on this as on many other issues, he does frame the subject and its significance in a more stark and compelling way.

8:17 Holt the moderator turns to Sanders: So then why do polls have Clinton beating you like a drum among minority voters? Sanders responds with a bunch of numbers about how great he’s polling (including how he does better against Trump in a hypothetical matchup). He’s channeling Trump: why answer a question when you can brag about poll numbers?

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Hillary, not feeling the Bern.

8:31 We turn to health care, another place where there is some daylight between Clinton and Sanders. He’s been talking up a single-payer system, and over the weekend released details about how he’d fiddle with taxes to make it happen. Clinton, positioning Obamacare as a path to universal health care, frames what Sanders wants as an unraveling of ACA that plays into Republican hands. Sanders, citing his usual (and accurate) facts about how poorly the U.S. healthcare system compares with other countries on cost and universality, argues that ACA doesn’t get us there. Clinton replies with a big Obamacare bear hug, accuses Sanders of wanting to tear it up, and cautions that relitigating health care at a national level is just not a shitstorm we should walk into. Sanders, while correct in his analysis of the limits of Obamacare, hasn’t found a way to explain effectively why it’s worth opening the political spigot that Clinton fears to push for dramatic but very longshot (to say the least). They go toe to toe on who Harry Truman would side with in this conversation. Disappointingly, Martin O’Malley fails to jump in with a Harry Truman impression to settle the question. He does, however, mention how great things are in Maryland. Everyone moves to Maryland for the next question.

8:44 First of the YouTube questions: a young guy with interesting hair asks how you will you engage my generation? All three candidates speaking in unison point out that no matter what we say or do you punks don’t vote so although we pretend to care about your concerns and we spew nice things from time to time about millennials and jobs and students loans, we actually have no interest in your concerns because you’re not going to vote anyway. Moderator Holt follows up asking Clinton why Sanders is beating her 2:1 among younger voters. She replies “like I could give a shit because they won’t vote anyway.”

Ok none of the stuff in that last paragraph happened expect the first part with the interesting hair and the question, and Holt’s follow-up, but you didn’t need thought bubbles on the screen to know that’s what the candidates and their consultants were thinking.

8:52 On to banks and the financial system. Sanders boasts (or maybe laments is the right word) that “I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.” Returning to the dead president motif, he invokes Teddy Roosevelt who would break up the big banks. Clinton decides it’s time for another Obama bear hug, slams Sanders for calling Obama weak on this issue, and portrays Dodd Frank as the greatest piece of lawmaking since the Magna Carta. Sanders replies that the drafters of the Magna Carta did not take speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Clinton says my plan is tougher than your plan, and besides Karl Rove is running Wall Street-backed ads against me so you know my positions on this must be bad-ass. O’Malley jumps in to accuse Clinton of speaking untruths. She replies that O’Malley nuzzles at the teat of Wall Street campaign finance just as much as she does (though she doesn’t quite put it that way).

The problem with this whole exchange is that while it is somewhat substantive on an important subject, the viewer gets little sense of how they would actually differ concretely in their approach to it going forward. They are arguing about who is tougher and meaner at the task of uttering sentences about how unpleasant greed in the financial sector is, but they aren’t saying much about what they would do going forward (except for O’Malley who does mention reinstating a form of Glass-Steagall … you go Marty.)

9:00-9:15 They talk for a while about how they are going to pay for all the nifty liberal stuff they are promising on the campaign trail (short version: “I’ll pay for it, trust me”) and then chat for a bit about climate change (short version: “it’s bad, trust me”).

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This guy was there, too.

9:16 And it’s foreign policy time! Everyone here pretty much defends the Iran deal. It’s a stark contrast with the Republicans last week, who all think it’s the worst deal since the Magna Carta, which apparently didn’t thrill them, and who all pledged to cancel both the Iran deal and the Magna Carta “on day 1.” Everyone here also more or less defends Obama policy toward ISIS, rejecting the idea of deploying ground troops. Sanders does a nice job of identifying “perpetual warfare” as something that is not such a keen idea. Clinton boasts that she has spent lots of time in the situation room. Sanders replies that he’s been in rooms in which there have been situations. O’Malley chimes in that he’s met Wolf Blitzer.

9:29 A question about Putin and Russia directed at Clinton – what’s up with that reset button thing you and Obama were into? Her answer is actually balanced and impressive. In general the Democrats do foreign policy nuance a whole lot better than the “wasn’t shock-and-awe the best thing ever” GOP. Think of it this way (if you’ll forgive an inappropriately gendered metaphor): Repubs on a debate stage talking foreign policy want to compare the size of their sexual organs; Dems prefer to muse about shape and texture.

9:39 On domestic terror Clinton says our first line of defense against lone wolf attacks is Muslim Americans. Recall that last week Marco Rubio said our first and last line of defense are the guns we can buy anywhere anytime with no restrictions. O’Malley offers up a riff that weaves Donald Trump’s fascism, fusion, and bed bugs into a single response. Not sure I caught the point, but I do admire the man’s range and versatility (and no, those are not metaphors for shape and texture).

9:50 In closing statements Clinton commendably brings up the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and calls out that state’s governor for not giving a damn. Sanders seconds that emotion, demanding the governor resign. O’Malley talks about a “threshold of a new era of American progress” that seems to involve detention camps, hedge funds, and Puerto Rico. I do believe I am guilty of not paying enough attention when he is talking.

Verdict? One thing we have learned over the last few months is that Clinton does well in these debates, lacking Sanders’ populist passion, sure, but commanding a broader issue sense and depth (especially on foreign policy). The Democratic Party’s decision to schedule relatively few debates airing at odd times has pretty much backfired if the idea was to smooth the way for Clinton. What it has done is limited her chances to beat Sanders back. While Bernie is effective at framing systemic issues and conveying outrage about them, he is less effective at charting a governing agenda that might actually happen. To be fair, Clinton isn’t so good at that either, but there’s less of an onus on her to do so because she isn’t advocating for revolutionary change; she’s running for a third Obama term. That was on clear display last night. One imagines that reminding everyone that she is the bigger Obama clone perhaps helps her with late deciders in Iowa and New Hampshire, so in polling terms in early states last night may stanch the bleeding a bit. Nationally, where her substantial polling advantage over Sanders has been more durable, last night probably changed little.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

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