The Saturday Night Democratic Presidential Debate

Robert Borosage

Eighteen million Americans watched as Republican presidential candidates savaged Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton incessantly in their “Fear and Loathing” debate in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Now Democrats will have their turn on Saturday night in New Hampshire.

Saturday night? Yes, the Democratic debate is perversely scheduled to attract as small an audience as possible. (No, the rumor that the Democratic National Committee has insisted on pay for view is unfounded.) Closeting the Democratic debates (the last one was also on a Saturday night) appears to be part of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s knavish service to the Clinton campaign, rigging the rules to shield the front-runner from frequent or widely watched debates that might give oxygen to her opponents.

This dupery is not only a disservice to the voters and the party, it also is backfiring on Clinton herself. As Frank Bruni suggests, it reinforces the impression that Clinton doesn’t believe “the normal rules apply to her.” The ploy also has abandoned the stage to Republican assaults on Obama and Clinton, dismaying the very activists that any Democratic nominee has to arouse.

The debate will no doubt focus on terrorism, ISIS and American security. This is Clinton’s area of greatest expertise and greatest vulnerability. As Obama’s former Secretary of State, her experience is unmatched. Her problem is that her judgments have been consistent wrong. She voted for the Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, defending it for years before begrudgingly admitting she made a mistake. Nothing did more to destabilize the region, feeding the terrorist threats we face today.

She was the leading advocate of the Libyan intervention and its escalation to take out Moammar Gadhafi. What her aides once mused about billing as the centerpiece of a “Clinton doctrine” now is a failed state, devastated by warring tribes and militias, where ISIS reportedly is establishing a fallback base. She pushed to arm the mythic “moderate Islamic forces” in Syria, a policy that ended with millions in weaponry handed over to ISIS and al-Qaida. Now she wants the U.S. to fight against both ISIS and Syrian president Bashar Assad, whose army would be the most effective force against ISIS. She calls for a no-fly zone in Syria that would lead to a direct confrontation with Russia, whose planes fly there legally at the invitation of the recognized government.

She has championed pushing NATO to the borders of Russia, allowing her neoconservative aides to encourage the overthrow of a corrupt but popularly elected government in Ukraine, then compared Russian president Vladimir Putin to Hitler when he reacted by consolidating Russian control of Crimea and its bases on the Black Sea. Luckily, President Obama recognized the importance of Russia’s help in securing the Iran nuclear deal. And Secretary of State John Kerry apparently recognizes the need to join with Russia in settling the Syrian civil war and in building a more unified coalition against ISIS.

Clinton’s consistent hawkishness should give progressives pause. If elected, she’ll face Republicans intent on obstructing all of her domestic initiatives. Inevitably, like most presidents, she’ll have far greater authority to act abroad. The last thing we need is a Democratic president fueling a new Cold War with Russia, confrontation with China in the South China Sea, and continued intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In the  Candidate Scorecard that evaluates Democratic candidates against the Populism 2015 Platformendorsed by leading national grassroots groups (National People’s Action, USAction, Alliance for a Just Society, Working Families Party, Working America), Clinton not surprisingly trails her opponents badly on the real security plank. The Populism 2015 Platform warns against attempting to police the world, calling for a real security policy that makes military intervention a last resort, and increases focus on climate change, poverty and inequality, the conditions that foster instability, violence and terror. It also calls for curbing excessive Pentagon spending. (Check out the Scorecard. It offers both a summary of each candidate’s position on issues, with links providing details from the candidate’s speeches or web sites.)

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, not surprisingly, scores the best in the area. He opposed the Iraq intervention and has been a consistent skeptic about U.S. support for regime change abroad. He has criticized the waste, fraud and abuse in Pentagon spending. In the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, as polls show Americans moving to support sending U.S. forces against ISIS. Sanders remains a clear and forceful opponent, understanding that while the U.S. military can destroy ISIS, terrorist groups will re-form in the chaos that is left behind.

On domestic issues, which are likely to get too little attention on Saturday, Sanders also continues to lead on the populist candidate scorecard. Most striking, however, is how well all three candidates score. As the campaign has proceeded, Clinton has filled out a reform agenda that speaks to many parts of the populist agenda – from raising the minimum wage to rebuilding our infrastructure. The Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing of the party is driving the debate, not the Wall Street wing.

The striking differences between Sanders and Clinton are significantly about boldness and strategy. Sanders consistently calls for bold change; Clinton consistently opts for detailed, complex, less wholesale reforms. Sanders wants clarity to drive the political revolution needed to clean out our corrupted politics. Clinton prefers modulated reforms that are essentially the opening of negotiations. The former offers a clarion call to the streets; the latter an invitation to repair to the backrooms.

The pattern is consistent.

Sanders would tax the investor incomes at the same tax rates as workers. Clinton would raise taxes on short-term capital gains, but have a graduated scheme for longer-term investments that is a full-employment program for accountants.

Sanders would levy a tax on financial speculation; Clinton would limit it to speculations deemed particularly reckless.

Sanders lays out a five-year, $1 trillion program to rebuild America. Clinton offers a smaller plan, with an infrastructure bank designed to attract private capital (insuring user fees and worse).

Sanders lays out a program for debt-free, four-year public college for all; Clinton supports tuition-free community college and offers a complicated income-based plan to reduce costs for four-year college.

Sanders would raise Social Security benefits; Clinton has talked about raising some benefits on lower-income recipients or widows.

Sanders would break up the big banks. Clinton would levy a tax based on size, and rely on regulators to decide whether some should be broken up.

The policy differences are an expression of their differences in political strategy. Sanders funds his campaign from small donations. He seeks to be a popular tribune who can rouse Americans to force fundamental reforms through Congress. Clinton will raise more money – and more big donations – than any candidate. She argues that she knows how to find common ground in negotiations with Congress.

This clash of ideas and of strategy should be of interest to Democratic voters and the public at large. But with the DNC is perversely doing its best to stage the few debates to attract the smallest audiences possible, they’ll have to find other ways to learn about it.

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