The Debate We Told You to Watch

In the latest Commonweal editorial, we urged readers to pay attention to the genuinely substantive debate unfolding in the Democratic primary – and especially to take note of the very real policy differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. I took that advice and watched the Democratic debate in South Carolina tonight in its entirety. Here are my first impressions. 

Two major elements of tonight's debate stood out to me: that this was the best I've seen Bernie Sanders, and that Hillary Clinton very smartly pitched her candidacy as building on and continuing the work of President Obama. Neither candidate fundamentally changed the race tonight, though I do think Sanders helped himself, most of all in the early contests of Iowa and New Hamphsire. It goes without saying that this was, far and away, a more informative and reality-based debate than the GOP's performance art offering just days ago.

Sanders, especially after an early question on gun control, set the tone for the debate and aggressively argued that he was the genuinely reformist candidate, invoking FDR and Harry Truman as he did it.

He asserted the importance of universal/single payer health care, breaking up the big banks, and going after money's outsized role in our politics – all while offering a more restrained foreign policy vision than Clinton. Sanders effectively rebutted the disingenuous recent critiques from the Clinton campaign that his plan for universal healthcare insurance would dismantle certain existing programs, like Obamacare, Medicare, and CHIP. That's true only in the narrow, technical sense that a single payer policy really would replace our current patchwork system, which leaves tens of millions uninsured – but it most certainly would not leave those who currently rely on such programs without healthcare, or subject to the whims of Red State governors. He cleverly called these "Republican attacks." Sanders drew a particularly strong contrast over the speaking fees and campaign contributions Clinton has received from Wall Street executives. Can someone who has received so much money from Wall Street, as Clinton has, be trusted to make the financial industry play fair? 

Sanders spoke longer than either Clinton or Martin O'Malley. He was sharper and better able to assert himself in this debate than in any previous contest. Even if you don't like Sanders, this was the best version of the candidate we've seen on a national stage, and he was much more adept at pointing to the differences between himself and Clinton than I can remember. 

Hillary Clinton was, as usual, well-informed and rather inflappable. Her mastery of policy detail was impressive; there are very few politicians who work as hard as she does, or know as much. Tonight saw Clinton more strongly claim to be Obama's heir than in any previous debate. This was very effective: she really is running to Sanders's right on a number of issues – again, she's in the position of arguing against universal healthcare, a policy popular with Democratic primary voters – but framing that, with real truth, as extending President Obama's policies seems to be the very best way to sell that to those who haven't yet made up their minds. To Clinton's credit, she pulled back tonight from arguing that Sanders's health-care plan would take away health insurance from the struggling and vulnerable, and instead emphasized that trying to pass a single-payer plan in the face of a hostile Congress would pull Democrats into a political battle they can't win. This, it seems to me, is the most honest and policy-focused variation on the "electability" argument for supporting Clinton, at least on this issue.

Tonight we also saw a substantive – though perhaps still not long enough – exchange on issues of racial justice. Clinton invoked "systemic racism," an important rhetorical signal that she understands the depth and breadth of the mistreatment and violence directed at black (and Latino) lives. Sanders pledged to have every death that occurs while a person is in police custody investigated by the Justice Department, and regularly invoked the unfairness of our dystopian War on Drugs (especially the criminalization of marijuana). 

If my reaction at all reflects the sentiments of Democratic primary voters – this was written before seeing any insta-polls, and without reading much by way of other commentary – then I suspect the polls in Iowa will continue to tighten and Sanders's lead in New Hampshire will stay strong and possibly grow, even as Clinton does well in national polling and continues to set herself up as a formidable general election candidate. In short, in the weeks and months ahead this will remain a debate very much worth watching.

Matthew Sitman is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Twitter.

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