Last Night's Democratic Debate: A Narrow Win for Sanders

Last night's Democratic debate in New Hampshire was the most sharply-drawn, heated contest of the primary season. With only Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton on the stage, the debate offered little chance for either candidate to evade pointed criticisms or simply fade into the background for a few minutes. Other candidates weren't there to interrupt the Sanders-Clinton exchanges, change the subject, or plead for more time. It was one of the most absorbing primary debates I can remember watching. Sanders and Clinton deserve credit for this, of course, but so do the moderators: Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd asked tough questions but never drew undue attention to themselves. 

Here's why the debate was a narrow win for Sanders.

The debate began on terms favorable to Sanders: the topics ranged from who was more progressive to the role of money in politics and, more broadly, Wall St. and the economy. It's surprising that Clinton still does not have effective answers to questions about her relationship to Wall Street. What she did offer was a lame mix of playing the victim, incoherent excuses, and a refusal to be transparent about what her speeches to Goldman Sachs (and others) might have entailed. Let's take them in order.

1. Playing the victim: One of the worst moments of the night for Clinton was when she accused Sanders of deploying "artful smears" for stating undisputed facts about the money she has earned and her campaign and Super PACs have raised from Wall Street. Appropriately, this drew boos from the crowd – portraying Sanders as an underhanded smear artist just doesn't seem like an attack that will stick. Substantively, Clinton wants to claim she never changed a vote because she has received money from financial interests. Which is, of course, beside the point. The issue of Clinton's Wall Street money is not about a specific quid pro quo, but whether or not Clinton is too comfortable with the status quo; it's not about her changing this or that vote because of a donation, but about what this favor from our financial overlords says about her willingness to challenge Wall Street's place in our economic and political life. 

 

2. Incoherent excuses: if, as Clinton claims, receiving millions of dollars both personally and through campaign contributions (including Super PACs) from Wall Street makes absolutely no difference to the way she approaches issues, then why is she in favor of campaign finance reform? Her argument amounts to: money makes no difference in politics – except when other people take it. Clinton simply can't assert that campaign finance is a pressing issue that we must address – that money is corrupting our politics – while dismissing concerns about the money she's received.

 

3. Transparency: as with her broader relationship to Wall Street, I'm surprised Clinton did not have a better response to the question of whether or not she would release transcripts of her speeches to financial institutions. Her fumbling reply was, "I'll look into it." Whatever principled case might exist for not disclosing these transcripts, it gives the impression she's hiding something when she won't let us know what she was saying to Goldman Sachs behind closed doors. If it really was just a chance for her to share her thoughts about the world, why the secrecy? 

This first part of the debate, in other words, saw Clinton on the defensive and dealt with issues that Sanders argues about compellingly and with great conviction. He's running on the economy, and was given a chance, at length, to explain his economic vision and contrast it with Clinton's. 

The worst part of the debate for Sanders was his handling of foreign policy questions. There can be no evading his failure to convince and reassure on this front: Clinton's greater experience and knowledge in this area were clear. He didn't really answer the question about what a President Sanders would do when he inherits ten thousand troops in Afghanistan – even when given the chance to do so during follow-up questioning. He persistently reached back to Clinton's backing of the war in Iraq rather than, say, drawing attention to her record as Secretary of State. While their differences over Iraq do indicate divergent approaches to foreign affairs, invoking Iraq again and again feels a bit stale. Clinton's line that "a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS" was one of her best of the night. She's right about that.

Sanders still needs to do serious work to be as informed as he should be about foreign affairs, but it's also clear he's less hawkish than Clinton. That she asserted more than once that sending combat troops back to Iraq or to Syria is "off the table" indicates she knows this, and is trying to reassure those skeptical of her record as a senator and Secretary of State. Clinton very much came across as cautious, serious, and a defender of President Obama. (She also cited Henry Kissinger's positive comments about her time at the State Department, a curious move indeed.) 

But one reason I think Sanders narrowly won last night is that I'm not sure most voters have especially well thought-out foreign policy views – it's the basic postures and rhetorical emphases of Sanders and Clinton that come through. And if you are casting a vote in the primary mainly based on foreign policy, you probably already have strong feelings about the candidates. In short, I'm not sure Sanders did poorly enough when discussing national security, and Clinton well enough, to change many minds.

In summary: Sanders's best moments in the debate were stronger than Clinton's best moments, and why I think last night's contest helped his cause.

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

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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