Dem Debate Recap: Madame Secretary That’s a Low Blow

DemFeb11WideViewWith Iowa and New Hampshire behind us, and all eyes now on Nevada and South Carolina, of course the logical place to hold a presidential candidate debate is … Wisconsin! Makes perfect sense, like everything else happening in this campaign cycle. And so it was last night: another round of Hillary v. Bernie head to head up in beautiful downtown Milwaukee. (The Repubs will give it another go Saturday in, more logically, South Carolina.)

Last night’s faceoff came at a crucial point in the Democratic race. Bernie Sanders, having just thrashed Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, is now trying to figure out how to parlay his massive win up north into any kind of win anywhere else (‘anywhere else” being a euphemism for “anywhere with fewer white people”). Thrashee Clinton, relieved to be done with that bit of unpleasantness in New England, looks forward to competing on more comfortable turf (“more comfortable turf” a euphemism for “turf with more non-white people”). For those of us who pay way too much attention, the 48 hours between New Hampshire’s outcome and Thursday evening’s debate was largely a contest between the two camps to see who could put more African-American surrogates in front of cable news cameras.

Here’s how it went down last night.

8:02 I figured that since this is the PBS-hosted debate we’d be liberated from trendy nonsense like social media types asking vapid questions. No such luck as moderators Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill inform us that there will be Facebook questions. Whatever happened to stodgy old PBS? I’m not sure I can keep giving annual donations to an outfit that asks Facebook questions.

8:05 Sanders’ opening statement is largely a compilation of his stump speech greatest hits, but one that quickly panders to black voters by emphasizing criminal justice concerns. Clinton in her opening agrees with what Sanders has to say about the “rigged economy” but quickly panders to black voters by talking about barriers and equality. Yes, Dorothy, we’re not in New Hampshire anymore.

8:10 Woodruff asks Sanders how much larger government would be under a Sanders presidency. Declining to put a number on it, Sanders offers a broad philosophical statement that “the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.” It’s a compelling big-picture principle rarely articulated by politicians, but as is typical of the Sanders campaign, he makes no attempt to quantify what it means or how it works in practice. Clinton does respond with a number: “It would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40%.” We have no idea how she arrived at this number and Sanders doesn’t quarrel with it. It does seem like she is scoring points here with people who hate government, or as many would label them, “Republicans.”

8:16 Tussling on health care, Sanders insists his advocacy of a single-payer system doesn’t mean he’d dismantle Obamacare first. Clinton insists “based on every analysis that I can find” that Sanders numbers don’t add up and that “many people will be worse off” with single payer. Calling that “absolutely inaccurate” Sanders explains that he’s merely advocating a system that virtually every country has (which is true though that fact doesn’t actually refute Clinton’s point). Noting the post-World War II origins of our present system, Clinton observes that “we are not England, we are not France” (she doesn’t opine on whether or not we are Ecuador or Guinea-Bissau) and gives Obama props for building on the system we have to get to where we are. The Obama hug aside, it is a bit dispiriting to see Clinton resort to the kind of nativist “we’re the U.S. we’re special so to hell with those Europeans” notion that drives so much of the charmingly cosmopolitan rhetoric on the right these days.

8:19 Should Americans who fear government fear you Democrats who want government to do more? Clinton claims she’s the one with plans that are concrete and transparent regarding costs and revenue sources. Sanders goes all in with infrastructure spending and free college tuition. Clinton responds with a canned zinger (and a fairly good one) about how doing free tuition depends on the cooperation of bad boy conservative governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin (where the debate is taking place – big applause from the crowd in the room all of whom probably detest Walker with every fiber of their being). Sanders responds with an eloquent defense of the concept of higher education as essential in the modern economy, but ignores Clinton’s process concern. Clinton is hammering him on the pragmatics of implementing his lofty agenda; Sanders has now let her do that without a response on health care and again education. It’s not clear he can win over undecideds and expand his base by continuing to ignore it.

DemFeb11Podiums8:24 Woodruff asks Clinton why in New Hampshire women were unimpressed with her womanly candidacy. You can see on her face that it thoroughly annoys Clinton to have everyone reminded of this or of anything to do with the debacle that was New Hampshire. Even so, it’s a softball question that lets her talk about issues she is very knowledgeable about and comfortable with. Not much Bernie can say when it’s his turn on this one other than brag about his voting record and say chicks dig me too. Ifill asks Sanders an odd follow-up: does it bother you that you might obstruct the historical accomplishment of a woman president? His reply, wryly delivered: electing someone like me “would be of some historical accomplishment as well.” (Translation: what am I, chopped liver?)

8:31 Sanders throws in a tangential but effective critique of Republicans for hypocrisy for hating government and pushing for less government except when it comes to regulating reproductive choice. Of course Clinton would completely agree, but his going there affords a nice illustration of how their campaign styles differ and why Sanders is having more success than anyone anticipated. Mostly they agree on the issues (and certainly on this one), but he is much more adept at forcefully articulating off the cuff the essential qualities and moral imperatives associated with many of these issues. She can manage this fairly well in prepared speeches; he does it very well improvisationally.

8:33 A Facebook undecided-voter question on mass incarceration. Sanders goes first. This being something he talks about all the time on the stump, it’s in his wheelhouse, though it also points to one of Sanders’ ongoing shortcomings: his inability or unwillingness to bridge big ideas into actionable public policy. He calls for “radical reform of a broken criminal justice system” – well said — but what does that actually mean in actual practice? Framing the problem with full-throated eloquence, alas, doesn’t point to specific policy solutions any better than mumbling the problem incoherently. Clinton is good on this issue as well, showing her more advanced political chops by connecting the issue to statistics in Wisconsin and a recent on-the-ground violent incident there. And keeping in mind that the race having shifted to the south is now much more about race, she pivots nimbly to the presence of systematic racism in not just criminal justice but also in jobs, education, housing, employment.

8:37 Why would race relations improve under your presidency when they didn’t under a black president? Clinton rejects the premise, arguing that Obama has accomplished a lot here, but acknowledges there is more to do. Nothing she says is wrong, but it highlights her inability to relate authentically with audiences on difficult issues. She is giving us a miniseminar on race-relevant areas of public policy, but there is no emotion or connection here. Sanders goes in an interesting direction: connecting Wall Street bad behavior in the financial crisis with loss of wealth in the African American community. After this intriguing claim Sanders goes in a stale direction suggesting that race relations will be improved because under his economics black kids will stay in school and get jobs. Kind of misses the point of the question in a clumsy way and hints at why minority support for Sanders is slow in coming. I think the bottom line here is that both candidates have a good grasp in a clinical sense of the problems of race, and both have relevant policy agendas, but neither really knows how the improve race relations writ large.

8:45 In a nifty move Sanders spins the conversation about race into one about how bad trade deals yield economic effects on jobs that disadvantage minorities in our economy … which spins into pointing out that he and Clinton disagree on trade. Clinton doesn’t take the bait.

8:47 On immigration, how far will you go to protect immigrants from deportation? Sanders gives a straightforward and unapologetic defense of the whole nine yards of immigration reform. On these issues where they both pretty much completely agree, the advantage always goes to whomever goes first: it’s much more rewarding to make the grand statement than to have to kill 60 seconds finding various ways to say “me too.” That said, Clinton does call out Sanders for voting against an immigration reform bill in 2007, a vote he defends on grounds it was a flawed bill that even some immigrant groups as well as the AFL-CIO opposed. She replies it was Ted Kennedy’s bill and how dare you besmirch the late great Ted Kennedy? He replies Ted Kennedy Schmed Schmennedy.

8:54 A Facebook question on meeting basic economic needs for low-income seniors. Sanders says more and better social security. Clinton says yep. Sanders then calls her out for being cagey about specific proposals to expand social security revenue by adjusting the cap on payroll taxes. Clinton dodges by saying c’mon dude we agree and we’ll end up in the same place. It’s not clear that’s actually true but Sanders lets it go.

DemFeb11HilllooksBern9:00 Ok it’s go time. Woodruff hits Clinton with a question about the influence of corporate money, and specifically a Wall Street funded Super PAC. Cue the minefield. She tries to dance through it first by saying she can’t speak for a Super PAC, and then by saying how proud she is of herself and (condescendingly) proud of Sanders for getting so many small individual campaign donations. She then hands it off to Sanders so she can be predictably pummeled on this. He duly pummels. She replies by wrapping herself around Obama and Dodd-Frank to claim that she’ll be tough on any and every industry that needs it. Sanders caustic reply: “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people.” Are we supposed to think, he muses, that industries make “yuuge” campaign contributions “just for the fun of it”? They go back and forth on whether Dodd-Frank works. This again is one of those issues where there isn’t all that much daylight between what they believe in concrete policy terms, but yuuge amounts of daylight between their respective abilities to explain the problem in a compelling way. Clinton will always lose this particular argument; the task for her when it comes up is to dilute the magnitude of the loss. She did that somewhat here.

9:15 After a lengthy halftime break, and a pointless question about reducing the size of government, we shift to terrorism and foreign policy. In the last debate Clinton came off a lot better than Sanders in this area. Clinton fields a question about readiness with a wide ranging discussion of capabilities and priorities. Sanders responds with his go-to move: she voted for the war in Iraq and I voted against it. He expands it into a far-flung lecture on the unintended consequences of the country’s history of regime change around the world over the last century. Clinton, prepared for this moment (and with a smug “take that, pal” smile on her face), ticks off a few regime change oriented votes that Sanders has cast in Congress. Sanders goes back to the Iraq vote. Clinton brags about how she personally killed Bin Laden with her bare hands.

9:20 Oh Henry! Sanders, pulling a tidbit out of Clinton’s book, links her to Henry Kissinger, “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country” and (the ultimate insult) “not my kind of guy.” Clinton defends Kissinger in a way that suggests she listens to many voices including those of incredibly evil former secretaries of state. Sanders tries to persist with the Kissinger thing by relitigating the domino theory. (Talk about an oldie but goodie!) This is actually a somewhat engaging conversation about modern diplomatic and geopolitical history; one fantasizes about what the addition of a bottle of whiskey and Donald Trump could contribute to it.

The fact that the foreign policy part comes in the second hour of the debate is a double edged sword for Sanders. On one hand it’s good for Sanders because we know that fewer people always watch the second half, so fewer will see her dominance. On the other hand it’s less good for Sanders because the last debate showed that as the evening wears on Clinton does a better job of staying fresh and nimble, while Sanders is prone to descending into tired looking old guy territory.

9:31 On Russia, Sanders says reasonable things, then Clinton says reasonable things that are substantially more detailed. While she talks, we hear old-guy hacking cough from Sanders in the background. (Note to Sanders staffers: insist on a cough button on podium at next debate.)

9:35 Sanders does point out that they differ on questions of a no-fly zone in Syria and on the pace of normalizing relations with Iran. He’s right but she gets the better of him as they talk through the latter issue. It turns out that being secretary of state for four years does equip a person with quite a bit of detailed working knowledge about what’s going on in the world.

9:42 One of those “let’s see how interesting you are” questions: name two leaders, one American and one foreign, who would influence your foreign policy decisions. (My own answers: Jerry Garcia and David Bowie.) These kinds of questions tend to favor the person who goes second because that candidate gets more time to think up an answer. On the other hand, if the person who goes second thinks up the same person, then the advantage is lost. Sanders goes with FDR for the domestic choice, unsurprisingly since he talks about Roosevelt routinely on the campaign trail as one who redefined the role of government. For the foreign choice, he goes with Churchill, a classic selection. You just can’t beat someone who beats Nazis. Clinton agrees on FDR (ouch) and goes with Mandela (a cynic might call it a crafty selection under the circumstances; fortunately I’m not a cynic) for the foreign choice.

9:46 Riffing off the leadership question, Clinton comes out of nowhere with an attack on Sanders for questioning Barack Obama’s leadership, calling it the kind of criticism “I expect from Republicans” not from someone seeking the Democratic nomination. Sanders, with a “where the hell did that come from” look on his face: “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow.” He points out with no small amount of sneer that in a democratic society it’s okay for a senator to disagree with a president on some issues. “I have voiced criticisms, maybe you haven’t,” he tells her. She doubles down accusing him of making “personal assessments.” Yikes, personal assessments! He responds that “one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.” It sounds at first like a zinger, but the more you think about it, the less it make sense.

9:48 Closing statements. Both are effective in their way, but where Sanders is a good minute of improv, Clinton’s is a tight, prepared minute of forceful oratory. She ends on an orchestrated high note.

Verdict: Both came in prepared to be aggressive toward the other when necessary, and that did yield a few spirited clashes (but since they agree on most things at a fundamental level, only a few). As in the prior Dem debates, the Sanders’ challenge is to expand his base of support. To the extent that undecided primary voters are open to a principled liberal ideologue over a pragmatic centrist-turned center-left progressive, he’ll pick up some. But to the extent that undecideds are as interested in how things get done as they are inwhat candidates favor, Clinton continues to hold sway. If the point of Bernie’s campaign is to influence the discourse and elevate progressive thinking into the Democratic party mainstream, he is wildly succeeding. But if the point of his campaign is to actually get the nomination then he can’t pretend forever that questions about governing are beside the point.

Next up: the Republicans go at it Saturday in South Carolina. It will probably be a more entertaining affair because, let’s face it, a theatrical tragicomedy is always more fun when at least some of the characters are batshit crazy. So go ahead and make those Saturday night plans, safe in the knowledge that we’ll be watching so you don’t have to.

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


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s