Reprinted from Campaign For America's Future
Thursday night's Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin once more featured strong performances from both candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Each consolidated the support of his or her followers. Neither suffered a blow that would damage their prospects. And in contrast to the Republican slugfests, the debate was far more substantive and informed.
Each candidate displayed the strengths that brought them here. Sanders was gruff, impassioned and clear. He hammered his message forcefully and clearly. Clinton was skilled and well briefed, adding sharp details to appeal to her audience. She is far more skilled in wielding the stiletto than Sanders, who is both less interested and clearly less comfortable in doing so. He indicts an "establishment politics and economics" of which she is a part; she effectively throws elbows and darts and, as Sanders complained, a "low blow" or two to bloody her opponent.
South Carolina and Nevada
With the Nevada caucuses and South Carolina primary looming, the candidates and the questions turned to the concerns of their far more diverse voting populations. Both adjusted their message to appeal to them in characteristic ways.
Sanders is the hedgehog; he knows one big thing. He forcefully presents the calamity of a corrupted politics and rigged economy. Last night, he elevated criminal justice reform and immigration reform in his message. Yet his most insightful moment was when he noted how the financial collapse brought on by Wall Street's excesses hit African Americans and Latinos the hardest, wiping out the dreams and much of the wealth of these communities.
Clinton is the fox; she knows many things. Her refurbished message going forward is that she will fight to knock down "all the barriers" that limit people -- from racism, to sexism, to xenophobia, etc. She concluded, somewhat disingenuously, that she is not a "single-issue candidate and America is not a single-issue country." This rings of a sound bite cooked up by a too clever by half campaign operative. The implication -- that Sanders indictment of a corrupted politics and rigged economy -- is a "single issue" is risible.
Obama, Obama, Obama
President Obama is immensely popular among Democrats. He is particularly popular among African-American voters in South Carolina who will constitute a majority of the electorate in the Democratic primary. He has served with grace and dignity in the White House, even in the face of extreme obstruction and insult from Republicans.
Yet, we have a country still struggling to recover from what Joseph Stiglitz now calls a long depression. Two thirds of the country think we're on the wrong track. Voters are desperate for fundamental change, and increasingly get that the deck is stacked against them. The Democratic nominee must be a voice of change, not of continuity. So Sanders and Clinton have to decide how to navigate that.
Clinton's response last night was to wrap herself around Obama and hug as tightly as possible. She praised him regularly. She invoked him to defend her super PAC and big-money fundraising (It was Obama's super PAC that decided to support her.) She waited to the final moment of the debate and then savaged Sanders for criticizing Obama.
This is a strategy clearly designed for the primaries. The Clintons know from experience that voters have short memories. If she gets the nomination, Clinton will reset her rhetoric to make herself the champion of change. But for now, she's happy to present herself as Obama's heir apparent.
Sanders also praises Obama regularly. But he clearly is challenging business as usual in Washington, and that includes Obama. He embraces Obama on foreign policy rather than mapping out an independent position there. He would like voters to know that he respects the president, even as he summons a political revolution to change the country. He is inescapably an agent of big change. We will see how that plays.
Domestic Policy: We're All Democrats Now
Both Sanders and Clinton want a more activist government that raises more taxes and spends more money. Bill Clinton's "era of big government is over" is over. For those of us old enough to have fought the wars with the New Dems, it is a delight to see Democrats arguing about who has the best plan to enhance Social Security benefits; make college tuition-free; provide paid family leave; move to universal, affordable health care. Sanders has driven this debate, and keeps winning more and more ground.
Clinton once more lacerated Sanders' pledge of moving to "Medicare for all." Polls show that it is possible to scare voters who have health care about losing what they have, and she's intent on doing just that. Sanders must do a better job of arraying the experts and the facts for his case. Clinton's contrast of Medicare for all vs. our current system based on "the insurance system, based on exchanges, based on a subsidy system" had to make her advisors wince. That is a good introduction to why Medicare for all would save people money.