The Democratic Face-Off in Milwaukee: The Hammer and the Stiletto

Robert Borosage

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.

After once more criticizing Sanders for promising too much, Clinton argued that her plans – for making health care universal, for paid family leave, for rebuilding our infrastructure, for tuition-free college and more – would only cost $100 billion a year. If so, she’s violating her own pledge about against making promises that don’t add up.

When asked what they would cut in government, both talked vaguely about waste and inefficiency. But the examples they used were revealing. Clinton talked about streamlining and combining various education and training programs. Sanders went after the Pentagon budget, the largest source of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, with books in such a mess, as he noted, that they still cannot be audited.

Foreign Policy: Still Foreign

We still haven’t seen a sensible foreign policy debate. Once more, foreign policy was defined as terrorism, the Middle East, and a dash of cold war with Russia. No mention of climate change – which will disrupt more societies and pose far greater threat than ISIS can imagine – or of looming global recession, or of our ruinous global economic strategy.

Sanders did a bit better expanding his critique of Clinton’s interventionist history and predilection, bringing in Libya and Syria. But he failed to make the obvious point that she was a consistent force for intervention and escalation inside the administration, and has criticized Obama for not being interventionist enough since she got out.

Sanders sadly joined Clinton in supporting Obama’s decision to ratchet up forces and tensions on the Russian border. He surely mystified millennial voters by attacking Clinton for embracing Henry Kissinger. He’s right about Kissinger’s record, but these days, we only wish Clinton would listen to him on Russia and China.

Corruption: Our Money Politics

Clinton’s worst moments in each of these debates are around big money in politics. Last night, the commentators didn’t go after her speeches or the convolutions of the Clinton Foundation, focusing instead on why big money is OK for her but Koch money is corrupting for Republicans.

Clinton’s response is always to start dancing. She presents herself as immaculate – her super PAC isn’t her’s, it’s Obama’s. She touts her small donors, as if the big money weren’t there. She wraps herself in Obama: he got Wall Street money and still did Wall Street reform. (Not mentioned is the glaring reality that under Obama, not one banker got prosecuted for what the FBI called an “epidemic of fraud.” And all the billions that the banks were fined were paid by shareholders (and taxpayers), not by individual bankers.)

It doesn’t fly. Sanders doesn’t attack her personally, he simply asks that we “not insult the intelligence of the American people.” “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around. Why does the pharmaceutical industry make huge campaign contributions? Any connection maybe to the fact that our people pay the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs?”

This was Sanders’ strongest moment in the debate. Clinton may want to dismiss his critique of our corrupted politics and rigged economy as a “single issue,” but more and more Americans are coming to understand that this is the heart of the matter. Now we will see if that message resonates with communities and states where Sanders is just beginning to introduce himself.

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