Dem Debate Recap: Artful Smear Edition

DemFeb4-0Going into last nights Dem tilt in New Hampshire the imperative for Bernie Sanders was maintaining his copious lead in the polls so that he doesn’t find himself falling short of expectations in next Tuesday’s primary. For Hillary Clinton the goal was partly to erode his lead a bit, but mainly just getting this whole New Hampshire thing over with so she can move on to more promising territory south and west. Although the debate vibe is less exciting now that we’ve lost the policy stylings of Marty the Party O’Malley, things did get spirited at times. Let’s go to the play by play.

8:03 The very first words out of Sanders’ mouth: “Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process.” That’s an upbeat start! It’s also actually sort of wrong. Given the chronically horrendous levels of voter participation in the U.S. compared to other advanced countries, it feels like those millions gave up long ago.

8:04 Clinton in her opening declares that “special interests are doing too much to rig the game.” A fair point, but it’s a bit, shall we say, rich coming from someone who just one night earlier on CNN couldn’t cogently answer a question about why it’s been okay for her to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street interests to give speeches.

8:06 Moderator Chuck Todd asks Clinton why she thinks Bernie’s ideas are untenable – why he won’t be able to make the things he’s running on actually happen. Her answer goes a bit wonky on several issues but doesn’t really answer the specific process question Todd posed. She concludes with a canned aphorism: “A progressive is someone who makes progress.” As a snappy way to synthesize her view on the (im)practicality of Sanders’ ideas, it’s mildly clever, but it’s also facile and wrong. It matters quite a bit what one makes progress on. Trump, for instance, plans lots of progress on his fabulous Mexican wall, but he ain’t no progressive.

8:08 Asked why he hasn’t gotten any of his expansive liberal agenda enacted in two decades in Congress, Sanders deadpans “well I haven’t quite run for president before.” (He then removes and cleans off the knife.) His answer, like Clinton’s, is unsatisfying because he, too, ignores the process question. His central claim is that he can’t believe we won’t or can’t do these things – hey Bern, you and me both – but unfortunately restating your agenda is not a defense of its capacity for enactment.

8:10 Clinton assures us there is no disagreement between them on universal health care. “The disagreement is where do we start from and where do we up.” She levels the accusation she has been making on the trail – that Sanders would have us start all over again, catalyzing a “contentious national debate that has very little chance of succeeding.” Sanders calls bullshit on the “start all over again” charge. He’s believable – surely nobody thinks he’d unravel Obamacare while trying to push single payer – but his angle here would be more compelling if he could persuade us he has the working leadership chops to make progress. Not there yet, and frankly not sure how he ever gets there.

8:12 Moderator Rachel Maddow asks Clinton to respond to statements by Sanders on the trail that she is too conservative and not sufficiently progressive. She throws out that progressive=progress trope again (drink). Needs to lose that, but then she offers up a strong, forceful answer with specific examples to make the point that a “progressive” litmus test would problemetize the lefty cred of several prominent liberals, including Sanders himself. Donning his cranky man pants, Sanders replies with a strident minilecture on “the reality of American economic life today.” It’s a short version of his stump speech, it gets lots of applause, but it has little to do with the question.

8:16 Chuck Todd asks if Obama would meet Sanders’ test of progressivism. Sanders reminds us that this whole conversation about Clinton’s liberal bonafides emanates from her own statement describing herself as a moderate. (So “moderate” is now a devil term like “child molester”?) He then goes on to say that he thinks Obama despite several non-progressive proclivities (on things like trade) is a progressive. Doesn’t say whether Martin Van Buren was also.

8:18 Clinton humble brags about the scars she has from health care battles in the early 1990s. Uses that to reject attacks on her for “where I stand and where I’ve always stood.” Says let’s talk about actual differences regarding what we’ll actually do. Sanders reply: you want differences? Fine I’ll give you differences. I’m the only one on this stage with no SuperPac and the only one not raising Wall Street money. Clinton, not amused to say the least, shoots him the dagger-glare across the split screen.

8:20 Asked how he can lead the Democratic party if he isn’t a Democrat, Sanders says a whole bunch of words and sentences that add up to, essentially, “well I am now so get over it.”

8:22 Clinton, apparently starting to let Sanders get under her skin, borrows his cranky pants and humble brags about all the Vermont Democrats who have endorsed her. Sanders concedes that she represents the establishment while he represents ordinary people. They both seem to be yelling at us now. I turn down the TV volume a few notches.


Bernie: not enchanted by Hillary’s efforts to paint herself as smear victim.

8:24 Clinton muses that it’s “amusing” for someone running to be the first woman president to be seen as “exemplifying the establishment.” It’s a sharp little quip that gives rise to a very sharp exchange. Bernie returns the volley with the observation that having your SuperPAC raise $15 million from Wall Street in the last quarter = “establishment.” Goes on to decry the extent to which “big money controls the political process in this country.” Clinton riposte is the classic frame-it-as-a-personal-attack gambit: he is using “innuendo” and “insinuation” to create an “attack” suggesting that anyone who takes speaking fees from special interests has to be “bought.” Scolds Sanders: “attacks by insinuation are not worthy of you” and oh by the way “you will not find that I changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I received.” Probably should have stopped there but she’s on a roll, so she directs him to “end the very artful smear” you have been carrying on and talk about issues. That draws “ooohs” from the crowd. She’s forceful (and clearly pissed) but has she overplayed her hand?

8:28 Sanders says fine you wanna talk about issues let’s talk about issues, and then goes on to recite the litany of progressive policy goals that are obviously obstructed by corporate contributions and lobbying. Clinton replies that no person in political life has had more special interest money spent againts her than her. Virtually yelling now, she pulls a Sanders vote from 2000 on derivative deregulation out of her pocket. Puts him on his heels a bit with that one. We go to a commercial break, giving the network a welcome chance to hose down the candidates.

8:37 Asked about her big speaking fees that she has been struggling to explain, Clinton claims with a straight face that Wall Street was paying her big bucks to tell them before the recession that “they were going to wreck the economy because of these shenanigans with mortgages.” Convenient that nobody can produce any tapes to prove such a thing. “I have a record, I have stood firm” and I’m the one who can prevent them from wrecking the economy again.

8:40 Invited to respond, Saunders goes full Bernie on Wall Street as death star. Gives full throated attack on power and corruption in rigged system. Clinton replies that she’s the one with actual plans to fix it. Her strategy tonight is at every turn to grab onto Sanders anger, and assert that she will act on it. It’s an effective rhetorical approach in large part because Sanders isn’t prepared to challenge her assertions. On Wall Street power and the economy the fact is they agree on the essentials.

8:46 Chuck Todd asks Clinton if she would release transcripts of paid speeches to corporate groups. (Translation: if you want us to believe you accepted six figures from Goldman Sachs for telling them they are ruining the economy we’re going to need some proof.) Clinton replies “I will look into it.” (Translation: when hell freezes over.)

8:47 Clinton is talking about all the evil companies she wants to “go after.” If Sanders has done nothing else with this campaign he has turned her into at least a good imitation of an anti-corporate economic populist. Sanders replies that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.” Strong stuff. Sort of true, sort of not. He oversteps here. Clinton wisely doesn’t refute, instead pivoting to the personal – people she’s met who have lost homes. Says she wants to “take back the power and increase the empowerment” of the people. This is a bit of a stretch. Let’s face it: the Clintons are the power, not a force that will “take it back” (whatever that means).

8:51 Sanders admits in reply to a question that there are good corporations, then hastens to add that there are also corporations that chew on babies and then spit the remains out into waterways as organic pollutants.


Hillary shows Bernie her “you don’t know squat about foreign policy” smugface.

8:55 Foreign policy. After the previous lengthy exchanges in Sanders’ corporate bashing wheelhouse, Hillary sports a smug and confident “now we’re on my turf, grandpa” look. And we are. She talks foreign policy with the steady substance of a former Secretary of State. It’s hard for Sanders to argue with, and he doesn’t, resorting instead to reminding us that he opposed the Iraq war she voted for. Credit to Clinton for owning the vote rhetorically and trying to redirect the conversation to the present.

Sanders’ challenge on foreign policy is that his approach to present-day difficulties don’t really differ significantly from Clinton’s, and (to his credit) he isn’t inclined to manufacture artificial contrasts that don’t really exist. Just as he is more authentically effective at articulating full-throated economic populism, she is better at discussing the issues and nuances of our foreign entanglements. So what we get is a civil and somewhat interesting discussion of world affairs between two people of similar mind and sentiment.

9:04 Sanders articulates a “doctrine” of multilateralism and restraint. Clinton turns on him a bit, showing off her geopolitical knowledge and suggesting some naivete on Sanders’ part. “This is a big part of the job interview” that we are conducting with the voters of New Hampshire. Sanders (refreshingly) concedes that Clinton has more experience than him, but then reprises the Iraq war vote as a test of “judgment” rather than experience. Clinton avers that O wouldn’t have made her Secretary of State if she didn’t have judgment. Throws around the “ready on day one” thing. Doesn’t mention whether it’ll happen at 3 am.

9:08 Sanders tries to find some daylight between the two of them on approaches to negotiation with foreign adversaries, but has difficulty as Clinton lectures him how things “really work” (a rebuttal that is effective but would be even more so without the self-satisfied facial expression).

9:13 A similar dynamic on Russia: Sanders is reasonable and sensible; Clinton is reasonable and sensible, but also informed, substantive, and strategic. On foreign policy she pretty much cleans his clock. Wonder how long until he mentions her Iraq war vote again.

9:15 Rachel Maddow takes pity on Sanders by throwing out a softball question on veterans and possible privatization of the VA. Sanders being a former chair of Senate committee on veterans affairs hits this one out of the park.

9:22 Evidence that 80 minutes is long enough for this debate: At minute 82 Chuck Todd is asking the candidates what they think about a possible audit of the Iowa caucus results. Both candidates agree that they’ve never heard of Iowa and have no idea what Chuck is talking about.

9:25 Further evidence: Rachel Maddow asks Sanders if as nominee he will be “destroyed” in the general just like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Sanders gives a long-winded answer that adds up to some form of “no” though frankly it’s not clear he has convinced himself. Asked to comment Clinton heaps praise on the Sanders campaign knowing that as she is speaking these words a Clinton campaign worker is out in the parking lot letting the air out of the tires of the Sanders campaign bus.

9:30 Chuck Todd takes Clinton out for a spin around Scandal Harbor on the good ship Email. Clinton speaks of a new development in what she deftly calls “the email matter” – reports that former Secretary of State Colin Powell and aides to former Secretary Condelezza Rice used private email accounts. Calling the issue an “absurdity,” Clinton makes a clearly pre-planned Sherman statement about the whole email affair: “I have absolutely no concerns about it whatsoever.” Nice to hear but one imagines that lots of Democrats likely still have plenty of concern. Sanders declines to take response bait; celebrates his own restraint, yielding applause. Comes off as a bit of a self-aggrandizing moment for the gentlemen from Vermont.

9:34 Maddow is asking pointless questions about pointless inside baseball mini-controversies during the campaign. Your humble correspondent losing interest (and I have a remarkable tolerance for this stuff). So is Clinton, who when asked if she’d like to chime in just says “no.”

9:39 We go to the death penalty, which would be one kind of issue to raise in a GOP debate (who can kill the most people with the fastest dispatch and the nastiest methods?), but is a more interesting subject in a conversation with two intelligent Democrats. Clinton is ok with it, citing McVeigh and Oklahoma City as an appropriate context for the federal death penalty, but expressing skeptism about states that do it badly. Sanders takes an abolitionist position across the board, so they differ philosophically on this.

9:42 Flint. Very bad we all agree.

9:46 Trade. Clinton is put upon  to defend her flip-floppery on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sanders has to explain whether he opposes all trade. We’re deep in the wonk-weeds now.

9:50 The overlong debate format favors Clinton on optics: After an hour and a half Sanders looks the part of an old guy getting tired, while Clinton (no spring chicken herself) somehow manages to keep the fresh going. If I needed someone to plead for my life and could only choose between two people who had just spent the prior 100 minutes debating at podiums under TV lights, Clinton would get the nod hands down.

9:55 Chuck Todd tries to force both of them into prioritizing major issues once in office. It’s a dopey time-filler question and nobody cares about the uninteresting answers they offer.

Verdict: Clinton has generally fared well in debates and this one is for the most part no exception. Though she remains awkward and defensive on the matter of her corporate speaking fees and gives ground to Sanders on economic populism, she makes up for it with her advantage on foreign policy. Sanders is solid on the (domestic) issues he knows best, but does he please crowds other than those he already has in the fold? I’m not so sure. One imagines that his big New Hampshire polling lead will contract a bit as Tuesday approaches, but he’ll be okay as long as it doesn’t shrink much. The real question is what happens after Tuesday: Can Sanders expand his base of support so that he can become competitive in a state that doesn’t border Vermont? For Clinton the near-term goal is to lose less badly than expected in New Hampshire and move on, and the debate may well have  helped her some. The longer term goal is to not get indicted for email mayhem.

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


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