A Clarifying Encounter

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton take the stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Thursday, Feb. 1... Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton take the stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) MORE LESS
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I cannot help noting the quality of this debate itself – how it was organized, the moderators, the quality of the questions. It was a throwback, but a good one. I do not think it was an accident that this one was organized by PBS or that they managed to bring it to a punctual conclusion. After all, this wasn’t a ratings or a ad sales driver for them.

On the candidates, I thought the debate began very well for Clinton and quite shaky for Sanders. He got a very basic question about the size of government, one he would certainly get in a general election and one which I do not think he should shy away from. But he wouldn’t touch it. Clinton was as strong and specific as he was hesitating and resistant to addressing specifics.

As the debate went on though I thought it became more of an even match. I cannot help but say that it surprises me that Sanders is as quick on his feet as he’s managed to get in these debates. That may sound a bit condescending. After all Sanders is in his seventies and he’s been in politics for decades. But there’s nothing quite like the intensity of big national presidential debates. I don’t care how long you’ve been a politician or how many local or even state debates you’ve been in. There’s nothing like it. And virtually no one is a natural.

Clinton has been in the national spotlight for going on three decades and this is arguably her third national campaign. Obviously she’s only run for president once before. But it was one of the most debate-intensive presidential campaigns ever. And her first run for Senate was so high profile as almost to amount to a national campaign. She’s had tons of practice. He hasn’t.

The real crux of this contest at this point is one between Sanders who has a coherent, readily understandable and often inspiring message versus Clinton who commands specifics, addresses a variety of issues at a very complex level and wants to pull the debate to concrete questions, to pros and cons, mundane but immovable realities. I think I said in the last debate that her motto was something like “I’m going to make everything better. Whatever you got, I’ll fix it.” It has no real magic to it. There’s no central critique unifying her message. And Sanders has that in spades.

I get the resonance and appeal of that. On the specific issue of guns, I made a similar argument last year. Gun control advocates have argued themselves into a corner of such minimal and almost trivial reforms that they are not only meaningless but politically enervating because we can’t even get the meaningless reforms we say we support. Gun rights advocates can credibly note that these reforms would accomplish hardly anything. Let’s draw back and say what we really think and build from there.

And yet there’s a vague hint of Rubio-ism in Sanders. When pressed on specifics he comes back to this very general if powerful critique about a rigged economy, a corrupt campaign finance system that undergirds that rigged economy and so forth. He keeps coming back to those same talking points. Now, he’s no Rubio of course. Rubes really is a callow pretty boy who’s had a series of elegantly crafted paragraphs produced for him to fit a certain political moment. What Sanders is saying is what he’s been saying for decades. It is rooted in a lifetime of a very specific way of thinking about the political economy, economic policy and the nature of equality itself. In a way the country or rather a decent chunk of it has simply caught up with him.

But different kinds of people, perhaps the same people at different moments, are going to resonate with one or the other of these approaches. And much of this campaign is going to come down to which group is bigger. In a very basic sense the two of them were simply talking past each other.

I think one meta strategy that Hillary brought into this debate was hitting specifics precisely to push Sanders back on to his same recitation.

I will say that I thought Hillary’s close was a key moment in the debate, perhaps in the campaign. It’s not that she crushed him or anything. But it was the first time I heard her pull together her essential message in a coherent, memorable way. Here’s the key passage …

We agree we’ve got to get unaccountable money out of politics. We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck main street again. But here’s the point I want to make tonight. I am not a single-issue candidate and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country. I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back, whether it’s poison in the water of the children of Flint or whether it’s the poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country, or whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and depressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the lgbt community against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that’s what I want to take on.

In a sense, it’s just another recitation of her laundry list of to-dos. But here it’s a coherent critique of Sanders. It’s memorable. Something you can frame a key part of a campaign around. One can buy it or not buy it. But I think Hillary has many potential supporters who’ve been listening to her and found her just sort of scattered and all over the place. I imagine that when Hillary and Bernie supporters argue over their candidates, you’ll have Hillary supporters come back to “She’s not a single issue candidate.” It sums it all up.

My only other big takeaway was that there was a palpable sense in this debate, though I wouldn’t tie it to any single moment, that we’re now on to parts of the country where the Democratic electorate is not made up solely of white liberals. How this all plays in that very different political terrain will of course tell the final story. I think they both had good debates. But I think she helped herself a bit more.

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