Excerpts and links from a variety of perspectives on the February 11th, 2016 #DemDebate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Last night Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders had a debate – for real, an actual debate – hosted by PBS and excellently moderated by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. It was a showcase for the moderators and the great value of public broadcasting and journalism, it was the most informed and spirited political debate I have ever witnessed in US politics, and as a result it was a great night for Democrats and/or progressives who are looking for a brighter, fairer future for America. My favorite moment of the evening was when the first Presidential debate in history where women outnumbered men took its last question from a stay-at-home-dad. 👊
The two things that stuck out to me last night (other than “wow this is so great!”) and they are still sticking out in my mind today.
First, Bernie Sanders needs to learn how to talk about racism without talking about economics and poverty. Plenty of African Americans in the middle and upper-middle class are also victims of harsh sentencing, over/under-policing of neighborhoods, and police brutality, not to mention disparities in how they search for and get jobs, how the legal system works for or against them, and how they experience any number of professional environments including show business and politics. (Sorry I couldn’t quickly find a citation for each of those clauses, but you get the point.)
Second, Hillary Clinton needs to not talk about Henry Kissinger. If the guy needs to be kept around because he has, unsurprisingly, uniquely good relationships with some authoritarian foreign leaders – okay fine, but that’s a dark secret for Foggy Bottom not a public boast for a Presidential candidate. If you want to know more, google “The Trial of Henry Kissinger” and/or Christopher Hitchens. I was actually surprised by how well Clinton parried Sanders’ attack on this topic, but seriously she needs to use the time it bought her to work on a strong, convincing disavowal of one of the most awful and toxic American politicians of the 20th century. But I digress! Let’s get to the reax.
Josh Marshall is another viewer struck by the excellence of the debate:
I cannot help noting the quality of this debate itself – how it was organized, the moderators, the quality of the questions. It was a throwback, but a good one. I do not think it was an accident that this one was organized by PBS or that they managed to bring it to a punctual conclusion. After all, this wasn’t a ratings or a ad sales driver for them.
There are other insightful, but less quotable, passages in Marshall’s write-up that deserve your attention.
Matthew Yglesias continues Vox’s mathematics-defying feat of declaring 3 winners (Hillary Clinton, #BlackLivesMatter, President Obama) and 3 losers (Republicans, Wall Street, Henry Kissinger) despite only having two contenders at the debate.Yglesias credits Clinton’s mega-embrace of our current President with making him a winner:
The essential strategy, seen several times during the debate — but most crucially during an exchange over Wall Street — was to use Obama as a human shield.
Did Sanders want to say that Obama was corrupt because he received campaign contributions from the financial sector? When Sanders says we need a political revolution, does that mean he thinks Obama was a failure?
Sanders largely refused to take the bait, declining to criticize Obama even when that forced him to blunt his criticisms of Clinton. That even the left opposition within the Democratic Party doesn’t want to voice clear criticisms of the president makes Obama a clear winner.
Despite the attention it received, the book did not lead to the prosecution of Kissinger. Nor did it spark all of the formal and official debates that Hitchens invited.
On Thursday night, however, Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders did debate Kissinger’s legacy in one of the most remarkable exchanges of modern presidential politics.
It was an exchange Hitchens would have relished.
The exchange really was epic. It was also one of a few points in the evening when I just thought, you know, Bernie Sanders is like video-blogging from these debates, and it is really awesome to behold.
Clinton’s decision to embrace Kissinger, like her highly paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, make her look like someone who’s too ensconced in the American elite to be truly committed to progressive values. It’s everything that many progressives dislike about her.
Which is why it’s such a successful line of attack for Sanders. He, unlike Clinton, isn’t really part of polite Washington society. His career in Congress hasn’t really required him to buddy up with people like Kissinger. He can give voice to progressive concerns about Kissinger and thus about the establishment.
The Kissinger debate, then, isn’t just an argument over a 91-year-old diplomat’s life and legacy. It’s a debate over whether Hillary Clinton is too compromised by her connections to America’s elite to be an effective liberal champion. This is one of Sanders’s key attack lines on Clinton, but one that he has struggled to connect to her foreign policy positions.
Fred Kaplan disagrees, because hey you can always count on someone at Slate to do the counter-counter-point, saying that Sanders whiffed a bit:
But just as he was building steam, Sanders took a weird turn, denouncing Kissinger’s nearly undisputed diplomatic triumph—his opening to China, which Sanders described as leading to the loss of American jobs because of subsequent trade deals.
The befuddlement of the moment left an opening for Clinton’s most jabbing riposte of the night. “Journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy,” she crowed, “and you have yet to answer that.” Sanders huffed back, “It ain’t Henry Kissinger”—which is fine, but who is it? Clinton replied quietly that she listens to many people.
Jonathan Bernstein saw the debate a little differently others (e.g. contra Marshall, Bernstein thought Clinton started flat then got better) and ended his piece with a focus on how these debate now fit into the primary campaign process:
The only real question on the Democratic side is whether there’s a large bloc of voters in each state that, when attuned to the campaigns, will flip from moderate support of Hillary Clinton to voting for Bernie Sanders, even while still liking Clinton. Voters tuning in for the first time on Thursday night received a fair sample of what’s ahead. Sanders can only hope that a chunk of them are gettable.
Delightfully, Bernstein included this footnote, which makes a fair point and will also be the end of TLP’s Kissinger-focused debate coverage:
- It sounded particularly off to me after Sanders had just finished bashing Henry Kissinger, who for all his faults can’t touch Churchill when it comes to imperialism and responsibility for ethnic-based violence. Granted, Sanders was talking about World War II, but still.
Nick Gass recounted one of the more WTF?!?! moments of the night – Senator Sanders’ claim that he will be better for race relations than President Obama – and put it in a context with another talking point Sanders has been trying out, despite it having no basis in any reality other than the right-wing la la land:
“Absolutely,” he said in response to a question from the moderator. “Because what we will do is instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, we are going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids so they’re not hanging out on street corners. We’re going to make sure those kids stay in school are able to get a college education.”
Earlier on Thursday, Sanders criticized President Barack Obama’s leadership in an interview with MSNBC, saying, “There’s a huge gap right now between Congress and the American people. … What presidential leadership is about [is] closing that gap.”
The President doesn’t control Congress. It is not the President’s job to be a relationship counselor for Congresspersons and their constituents. It bugs me that Sanders is basically parroting a talking point that is beloved by the GOP (the part actually controlling Congress) and that originated in the minds of Beltway uber insiders. It is an odd evening when the radical outsider is hugging FDR, Churchill, and parroting the DC cognoscenti. But I digress (again).
John Nichols, in a second piece about the debate, was impressed by Clinton’s references to Wisconsin politics in her answers about national issues:
the latest Democratic debate. Clinton’s references to Wisconsin issues and personalities came at proper points in the discussion. She used insights and details from Wisconsin to inform discussions about issues of concern not just to Wisconsinites but to Democrats who live far from the state.But Clinton displayed a sense of place that was not just an example of smart politics. It was a reminder of what Americans should expect in a presidential contender and a president. The front-runner who now finds herself in a serious contest with Sanders—the winner of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary—did not merely name-drop the state she was passing through for
Brendan Bordelon, predictably, found the worst possible interpretation for Clinton’s evening:
Although Clinton desperately needed to blunt the insurgent candidate’s momentum coming out of New Hampshire, it was her opponent who threw — and landed — the most punches. She tried to trip up Sanders with detailed policy answers, repeatedly asking him to “level” with the American people on how he planned to accomplish his utopian vision. But caught in a defensive crouch and struggling to explain her own campaign’s shortcomings, she never really found the opening she needed.
Jamelle Bouie provides another must-read, with a focus on Clinton’s new line of attack on Sanders – “I am not a single issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single issue country” – and how, particularly when she used it to debate racial justice issues, this is a deft move against her opponent:
She paints the Vermont senator as too blinded by his focus to see or understand the unique problems faced by different minority and underprivileged groups, as evidenced by his clear discomfort with topics outside of income inequality. (You could call what Clinton is doing an “intersectional critique,” though her advisers would probably not use that term.). She zeroes in on Sanders’ great strength—his incredible consistency—and makes it a liability.
Whether this works is an open question. Clinton has her own, deep-seated problems that threaten her ability to win, from her history with Wall Street to her judgment on foreign policy to her ties to the worst policymaking of the Bill Clinton administration. But, after weeks of floundering against Sanders, there’s a real chance she’s found her footing.
Which is to say that Hillary Clinton is visibly improving in the face of a vigorous challenge. If she wins the nomination, and captures the White House, there’s a good chance she’ll have Sanders to thank for making her fight for a win, instead of walking to the finish line.
Lastly, Max Fisher goes in depth on the foreign policy discussions during the debate. Fisher’s critique is even-handed, but I’m pulling these quotes out because they made me smile (even though they are a bit rough on Bernie):
Last night Sanders gave us extended lectures on the dangers of the domino theory, the 1953 US-backed coup against Iranian leader Mohammad Mosaddegh, and US policy toward Cambodian leader Norodom Sihanouk. The past leaders he name-checked — Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Winston Churchill — were all contemporaries of the Ottoman Empire.
Hearing Sanders discuss foreign policy at Thursday’s debate was thus like listening to someone who had been cryogenically frozen in 1983 and thawed out mere moments before walking onto the stage. Republicans sometimes talk as if the Cold War never ended; Sanders seemed at points legitimately unaware that it has. That is concerning for his ability to confront a very new and different set of challenges.
If you missed it, you can watch the whole debate here, because PBS. 👍
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