Durham #DemDebate Reax

Excerpts and links from a variety of perspectives on the February 4th, 2016 #DemDebate in Durham, New Hampshire.

Two great candidates.

I didn’t watch the debate live last night, which is not a first, but this is the first time I found myself so interested in the online reactions to the debate that I found it on youtube and watched it later. My reaction to the debate can best be summed up by saying that I am really encouraged by the quality and relevance of the exchange between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both of them have their worst moments when they are making their weakest arguments, (as opposed to the GOP candidates, who tend to get the most support when they perform mightily for their least sensible positions), but even still those moments are few and they give the other candidate a moment to shine. Mostly they have good moments, back and forth, and the addition of more primetime debates on the Democratic schedule can only benefit these candidates that are both excellent debaters. Also, I have to say, I think that every time Senator Sanders hits Clinton for being a “moderate” he is netting her 10,000 votes in a future general election.

The reactions I gathered up fall into three categories: looking at the whole debate and/or in the context of the Democratic nominating contest; focused on Clinton; focused on Sanders.

Focus on Sanders

Jim Newell thinks that Clinton needed, but failed, to land a big punch against Sanders during the debate, partly because Sanders handled himself so well:

But there was nothing Clinton introduced Thursday night to seriously wound Sanders, and he was able to parry her more occasionally aggressive posture. Sanders needs to maintain his strong New Hampshire lead and hope to use the 11 days following the primary, when he would be the reigning winner, to sway more voters in more diverse states to his side. It’s a tough strategy. But if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be because of his performance Thursday night.

Daniel White makes a comparison between the electability arguments by both Senators Sanders and Cruz:

At Thursday’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, the Vermont Senator was pressed by moderators on how he could win the general election.

His response: By getting more irregular voters to show up.

“Democrats win when there is a large voter turnout; when people are excited,” he said. “I believe that our campaign up to now has shown that we can create an enormous amount of enthusiasm from working people, from young people, who will get involved in the political process and which will drive us to a very large voter turnout.”

Matthew Yglesias believes (and I completely agree) that Senator Sanders’ campaign is doing Hillary Clinton’s campaign some favors:

Yet the reality is that no matter how annoying Clinton, her team, and the dozens of senior party figures backing her may find it, Sanders’s attacks are in her own long-term best interest. That’s because his framing of Clinton as a temperamentally cautious, ideologically moderate politician who tries to straddle the divide between progressive activists and status quo business groups is for better or for worse exactly how she is going to want to portray herself for the coming general election.

Focus on Clinton

Brendan Bordelon thinks Clinton defended herself well against Sanders’ critiques, but believes she was unprepared for questions about transcripts of her paid-speeches:

Clinton’s newfound aggression served her well on Thursday, proving to voters that she can push back against Sanders’s far-left critique and even throw a few punches of her own. But while Sanders wasn’t noticeably weakened at the end of the night, the Clinton campaign now must plug the dike on yet another issue. Whether the demand for Clinton’s paid-speech transcripts will have an impact on next Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary remains unknown. But either way, it’s just one more example of how the Clinton family’s complex network of public and private interests continues to backfire in unexpected ways.

Conor Friedersdorf isn’t a fan of the claim by Clinton (or for that matter several GOP candidates) not to represent or exemplify the establishment:

I don’t think Hillary Clinton is unaware that she’s a part of the establishment. Rather, I think that she was willing to feign offense to deflect from a charge that she knows to be true. “She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her,” Sanders declared, and she “does represent the establishment.”

That is absolutely correct. See for yourself.

In all this, she is not alone.

There are politicians aplenty who have played outsized roles in shaping U.S. politics and policy who nevertheless deny that they are, in fact, part of the establishment. In so doing, they avoid grappling with their roles in national failures. That sort of nonsense deserves to be called out.

Read the whole article, it’s good.

Zack Beauchamp believes that Clinton had her best response yet to Sanders’ mentioning her Iraq war vote during the debate:

Clinton was ready with a new rebuttal — and a more effective one: “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.” Here’s the full text of her response, met with a round of applause from the Democratic audience:

Look, we did differ. A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS. We have to look at the threats that we face right now and we have to be prepared to take them on and defeat them.

For once, Clinton didn’t sound defensive on her 2002 vote (which she now says was a mistake). Instead, she put the issue in the past, and instead turned the debate back to one of Sanders’s weaknesses: his relatively thin résumé and knowledge base on foreign policy.

On the topic of her disagreement with Senator Sanders about Medicare-for-all vs. expanding Obamacare, Jordan Weissman sees another improvement in Clinton’s rhetoric, now that she is focusing on the difficulties of make such a dramatic change to the nation’s healthcare system:

You may not especially like this argument, but it’s honest. The wars over Obamacare aren’t even over, and Clinton doesn’t want to relitigate the fundamental question of how our health care system should be structured. She also doesn’t think the government should take away coverage that people already have (likely because, as she learned in the early 1990s, people who have insurance tend to be incredibly protective of it). Instead, she wants to build on the framework that Obamacare put in place and try to expand insurance to those who still don’t have it.

(An earlier article by Ezra Klein, which Weissman mentions and links to, describes how problematic Clinton’s initial attacks were.)

Tierney Sneed at Talking Points Memo saw 5 key ways that Clinton changed her tactics in the debate Thursday, the first of which is fundamental to the other four:

In previous debates, Clinton positioned her answers as attack lines she could use against Republicans in the general, rather than responses to Sanders in the primary.

Thursday, she was more focused on taking every swing at Sanders she could, and when she did bring up Republicans, it was to suggest that Sanders was not strong enough to take them on.

The bigger picture

Ezra Klein focuses on how Clinton and Sanders finally started having a real debate about how governing works:

Clinton, for the first time, made a full-throated case for her political realism. “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” she said, taking a clear shot at Sanders. Later in the debate, Clinton noted that she was besting Sanders in endorsements from his home state of Vermont — not to mention the rest of the Democratic Party.

“I think it’s because they’ve worked with me, they’ve seen what I do,” she said. “They want me as their partner in the White House.”

Sanders was unfazed. “She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her,” he shot back. “That’s a fact. I don’t deny it. I’m pretty proud that we have over a million people who have contributed to our campaign averaging 27 bucks a piece.”

The exchange encapsulated both the MSNBC debate and the Democratic primary itself. Clinton knows how to work the system — she’s better informed, better connected, and more strategic. Sanders is untainted by the system — he’s less corrupted, less conflicted, and less disillusioned.

Jonathan Bernstein was less impressed by the first portion of Thursday’s debate:

The first hour of tonight’s debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was full of fireworks — Clinton clearly came out ready to brawl, and Sanders was eager to take her on. The debate was substantive. But it was also, I’m fairly sure, the least policy-specific hour of a Democratic presidential debate ever.

Instead, the candidates debated ideology, party loyalty, the nature of power in a capitalist system, and other generalizations. They spent an inordinate time (egged on by the MSNBC moderators) discussing what counts toward being a “progressive” (the Democrats, unfortunately in my view, having settled exclusively on that word rather than good old-fashioned “liberal”).

In other words, they sounded a lot like Republicans. I mean, without the sideshow.

Trudy Ring focuses more on the policy differences that were discussed:

The candidates also discussed foreign policy, with Clinton touting her experience in this realm as secretary of State, and Sanders replying that judgment counts as well, once again criticizing Clinton for her vote in favor of the Iraq war when she was a U.S. senator from New York. But they had few substantive differences on foreign affairs, both emphasizing the need to build coalitions and saying they wouldn’t commit U.S. ground troops to fight the terrorist group ISIS but would be supportive of Middle Eastern countries’ efforts. Clinton did object to Sanders’s expressed desire to normalize relations with Iran, but Sanders stressed this is not something he would do right away; instead, he would take cautious steps in that direction.

A difference emerged on part of the supposed progressive litmus test, opposition to the death penalty. Both had reservations about how states implement it, but Clinton said she would keep it at the federal level for certain heinous crimes, such as Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 attack on the federal building in Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people.

Sanders said he opposes the death penalty because too many innocent people, especially members of minority groups, have been executed, and that “in a world of so much violence and killing, I just don’t believe that government itself should be part of the killing.”

Michael Tomaskey really enjoyed the debate, describing it as the best he has seen including “a few tough moments, a few tender moments” and he also thinks Clinton’s best argument against Sanders in New Hampshire may have emerged:

But here’s Clinton’s possible opening. Sanders’s foreign policy problems were real. He had no chops beyond saying I voted against Iraq. So Clinton can get at him on that. But: She should not make it a foreign policy argument explicitly. If she goes out there Friday and says “Senator Sanders isn’t prepared to deal with our complex world,” it’ll fall flat, because most Democratic primary voters don’t care about our complex world one-tenth as much as they care about evil banks and Wall Street.


However, they do care, being good liberals, about basic competence and levels of knowledge. So she needs to disguise her foreign policy argument (because most people feel kind of intimidated about foreign policy) as a ready-to-be-president argument. Because ready-to-be-president is code for Sanders’s lack of knowledge about foreign policy, but other things as well: the fact that he hasn’t ever had to take on the right in the way she has, the fact that he’s never been through the media grist mill in the way she has, and so on. It’s not an electability argument. It’s different. It’s about who can handle the job. Foreign policy is the avenue into it.

The clear distinctions being drawn between Sanders and Clinton during the debate were described differently by different viewers, although everyone agrees the Democrats have a pretty clear choice in this primary. Gerald F. Seib sees it in terms of a doer vs. a dreamer:

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the doer. She stressed her experience, her desire to set achievable goals and her ability to work the system successfully to achieve them. There are limits to what can be done, she seemed to be saying, and it is better to work all the way to those limits rather than play Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, and ultimately fail.

Let’s go down a path where we can actually tell people what we will do,” she said. “A progressive is someone who makes progress. That’s what I intend to do.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) is the dreamer. If the system sets limits, he argued, don’t accept the limits, but instead smash the system. Wage a political “revolution”–a word he uses without reservation, and repeatedly–for government-guaranteed health care for all, for free college education, for a giant leap in the minimum wage.

And he has a simple unifying theory of why this all hasn’t happened already: a “corrupt” campaign-finance system that allows corporate interests who would lose in a changed world stand in the way. Change campaign finance and all becomes possible.

Josh Marshal saw it in terms of mutually inclusive issues of electability and vision for the future and in the context of an increasingly challenging campaign for both candidates:


In terms of the debate itself, the first segment was very hot. In part, the pressure of the campaign is boiling over in the exchanges between the two. Campaigns involves hundreds or millions of people, with each candidate as a fulcrum for the directives, hopes, antipathies, aspirations of so many people. The intensity of emotion, pressure, the stakes can be overwhelming. And you could see some of that coming out this evening.

David Graham chose – and this is the cutest version, for sure – to describe it as a debate between a hedgehog and a fox:

With the New Hampshire primaries just days away, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met on a debate stage in Durham on Thursday. In their first one-on-one matchup, the duo seemed determined to illustrate Archilochus’s classic binary between the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them.

Jamelle Bouie also rated the debate highly and thought it was a good showcase for the DNC:

Which is to say that, if you’re a Democrat, it is an actual shame that the party hasn’t held more of these debates. A regular series of primetime showdowns between the candidates would provide an incredible contrast between the two parties, and showcase the Democratic candidates at their absolute best.


It’s not that quantity of debates is dispositive—if Democrats lose this election, it won’t be because they didn’t argue enough in public—but that not having more might be a missed opportunity to show the best face of the party to interested Americans, as well as win positive attention for each of the contenders. Democratic leaders should take note: Next time there’s a primary, schedule more debates. You won’t regret it.

Last but not least, Dylan Matthews at Vox was able to meet the challenge of using the same recap formula for a two candidate debate as for a six-plus candidate debate, declaring two winners (Sanders, Clinton) and three losers (Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Wall St., Doves) from bivocal the debate! The highlight for sure is the bit about how bad the evening was for Wall St.:

The financial sector’s best hope of stopping this process was nominating Hillary Clinton. She literally represented Wall Street during her time as the senator from New York, and her core of economic advisers is centered on Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs/Citigroup chairman. As recently as November, she was defending her pro–Wall Street votes by invoking 9/11.

But tonight, her defense was different. It wasn’t, “Actually banks are good.” It was, “Sure, I take their money, but I will still gut them like fish”

Whether or not you buy her explanation for Republicans attempting to help Sanders — I think it’s less that they’re scared of her views and more that they think Sanders is hopeless in the general election — the message here is clear. To paraphrase Jesse Unruh, she can take Wall Street’s money and still tell them to fuck themselves. And her comprehensive Wall Street reform plan suggests she has some credibility here.

If you were a financial executive watching tonight, you’d still leave less scared of Clinton than of Sanders. But you’d leave convinced that another Democratic administration will entail a world of hurt for Wall Street.

That’s something we can all agree on, which reminds me of this Bernie moment from the debate. A good reminder for progressives of all types (and paces) and a nice note to end on:

“On our worst days, I think it is fair to say, we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.”


Saturday’s #GOPDebate Reax can be found here

Monday’s #IowaCaucus Reax can be found here

Got a question or comment? Send an email, comment on Facebook, or tweet on Twitter. There is also Tumblr and the comment field below, if you’re into that kind of thing. 

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