Sound & Fury in the Democratic Debate, Signifying—What?

Much will be made of the “tone” of tonight’s Democratic primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and it certainly was filled with fierce and combative exchanges. The two candidates went after each other. A raucous crowd further added to the debate’s drama and intensity. But Clinton and Sanders never descended to the truly ugly, even if their attacks were sometimes disappointingly unfair, and neither of their performances seems likely to dramatically alter the race. Still, it was a win for Bernie Sanders. Here’s why.

As a candidate who began his campaign polling at three percent nationally, and who still lacks the profile and name recognition of Clinton, most debates in which Sanders holds his own help him. This is no fault of Clinton’s—it’s just true that frontrunners who long have been on the national scene often have less to gain from debates than their challengers. (It’s why the Clinton-friendly Democratic National Committee initially sanctioned just half a dozen debates, with many of them scheduled at times, like Saturday nights, when viewership would be low.) These advantages of Clinton’s, if anything, are heightened in New York, which elected her to the Senate twice. Very few viewers learned much about her tonight, but this might have been the most sustained look many have given Sanders.

A related point is that journalists, especially but not only those following the candidates on the campaign trail, hear their talking points and stump speeches day after day. When those familiar lines get used during debates, they are easy to dismiss or discount. This is all the more true of Sanders, who has significantly improved as a debater but still lacks Clinton’s range and relies more than she does on well-worn rallying cries. But most voters, and many who watched the debate tonight, haven’t heard them nearly as much as the journalists covering the race.

This makes it easy to underestimate the effectiveness of Sanders’s message discipline—he expresses his main ideas clearly, repetitively, and in easy-to-grasp phrases. At the end of this debate, it wasn’t clear how well Clinton’s message broke through. Or rather, apart from Clinton’s emphasis on her experience and competence, there was no lingering sense of what her campaign is about. She talks about many issues fluently, but what overarching themes or ideas lent her performance tonight vividness and focus? It’s not entirely clear.

A similar dynamic is at work in the candidates’ attacks on each other. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias—certainly no Sanders flunky—noted after the debate, Clinton’s criticisms of Sanders were “all over the map,” with one often undermining the other. When you claim Sanders’s policy goals are totally unachievable and never would make it through Congress, for example, it takes the punch out of charges that the numbers for how he’ll pay for them don’t add up. If the former is true, why does the latter really matter? This isn’t to say Clinton didn’t hit Sanders hard, and effectively, on a number of issues, above all gun control. But the force of this attack was blunted when the debate moderator, Wolf Blitzer, called her out for the deeply misleading charge that Vermont is to blame for gun problems in New York. (In reality, just 55 of 4,585 guns used in crimes in New York able to be traced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives were from Vermont; Clinton’s claim rests on using per capita data, which makes it seem like Vermont is responsible for more of New York's gun problem than it is.)

Sanders, on the other hand, put Clinton on the defensive for much of the night. It remains baffling that she does not have a more effective explanation for why she won’t release the transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs. Put aside the debatable substance of the issue: her evasiveness on this issue looks terrible, and by not letting voters know what she said to Wall Street executives behind closed doors, it feeds the impression she’s hiding something. Her equivocation on whether or not she would lift the cap which lets wealthy people only pay Social Security taxes on the first $118,500 of their income likewise hurt her. She refused to say yes or no when pressed on that question, and it led to a few minutes of awkward dissembling. At the end of her answer, it was impossible to tell what her actual position was.

It was surprising that Sanders didn’t have a sharper reply ready when asked how, precisely, the money Clinton raises from Wall Street and the financial industry influences her policies. Still, it seems peculiar to take the position that such money makes no difference to a politician—after all, the assumption that it does is behind opposition to the Citizens United decision, which both she and Sanders want overturned. Overall, whatever his missteps, it remains the case that Sanders’s criticisms of Clinton all fit together, are mutually reinforcing, and amount to a coherent critique of her as a candidate. The speeches, the Wall Street campaign donations, her strange pride in having told the banking industry to just cut it out: they all go back to the basic idea, to again borrow from Yglesias, that Clinton is “more beholden to interests that benefit from the status quo.” That she is part of the Establishment, and thus not willing and able to deliver real change. Even if you don’t find that persuasive, it’s not difficult to see how it could be effective, and that there’s a unity to Sanders’s attacks that hers lack.

Most of all, though, Sanders was able to set the terms of debate on a number of issues: climate change—he hit Clinton hard on fracking; a $15 minimum wage; breaking up the banks; our failed policies of regime change in Iraq and Libya; and the ongoing strife between Israel and Palestine. On the last of these, Sanders’s willingness to be critical of Israel and speak of Palestinians with empathy and humaneness might not help him in New York, but it was a remarkable example of responding to a fraught issue with honesty and clarity. The contrast with Clinton was striking—especially on a night when she seemed more evasive and hedging than usual. When Sanders forthrightly argued that Israeli operations in Gaza were a disproportionate response to Palestinian terrorist attacks, it seemed fresh and bold, an example of a candidate putting conviction ahead of calculation. And it really might mark a shift—turning point seems too strong of a phrase—in how we argue about our relationship to Israel, and what the boundaries of those arguments are.

Tonight’s debate was a hard fought, close-run contest, and none of the above should be taken to suggest otherwise. As with previous Democratic debates, it was more substantive than any the Republicans have held, despite the ferocity and urgency both candidates displayed. While some polls have showed Clinton’s lead narrowing in New York, she remains the favorite—but tonight, Sanders helped himself. He landed more effective attacks, and he generally put Clinton in the position of responding to his bold, if also ambitious, ideas and plans. Again and again, she had to explain why Sanders’s proposals wouldn’t work.

As the debate ended, and the crowd chanted Bernie’s name after his closing remarks, Clinton stood there—composed and ready—waiting for her turn to speak. When she did, her final statement was effective and compelling. But it didn't get Bernie's applause. That seemed like an apt, telling conclusion to the night.

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

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