Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders won three of four state contests over the weekend. On the Republican side, Ted Cruz emerged as the leading challenger to Donald Trump in what is quickly becoming a two-man race. And the seventh Democratic debate, in Flint, Mich., highlighted the differences between the parties as much as the differences between the two contenders.
Democrats: Sanders Still Rising
Sanders took the caucuses in Nebraska, Kansas and Maine, while losing the Louisiana primary, as Clinton continued her sweep of the red states of the South. While the mainstream media – egged on by the Clinton campaign – edges towards calling the race over, Sanders keeps on rising. His expanding army of small donors continues to fuel his campaign. And he can look forward to growing support – particularly in the contests after mid-March, as he introduces himself to more and more voters.
For Clinton, the victory in Louisiana showed her “firewall” of African-American voters continues to hold. The two candidates ended dividing the delegates won over the weekend, showing the tough challenge Sanders faces. But Clinton's losses in the caucuses should raise concern. Unlike 2008, she is organized and intent on competing in the caucus states. But she clearly has trouble rousing the passions of the activist voters who tend to dominate caucuses.
Republicans: The Donald Is The Moderate
The Republican race is rapidly turning into a two-man faceoff between Donald Trump and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Trump won the Louisiana primary and the Kentucky caucus over the weekend. Cruz won the caucuses in Kansas and Maine. Marco Rubio and Governor John Kasich trailed badly in all four. Rubio did pick up the Puerto Rican primary on Sunday.
Clearly, the much ballyhooed plan of the “Republican establishment” to rally around Marco Rubio has collapsed. Rubio’s schoolyard taunts at Donald Trump haven’t helped him. If Rubio doesn’t win Florida on March 15 – and he trails badly in the most recent polls – he is gone. If Kasich doesn’t win Ohio, the race may be virtually over.
Now Republicans must look on their works in horror. Trump – the xenophobic, racist, misogynistic blowhard – is the moderate in the race. Cruz, the most hated Republican in the Senate, is a right-wing zealot. He criticizes Trump not for being extreme, but for being squishy – on abortion, on immigration, on judges, on government. Moderate Republicans may now try to rally around John Kasich, if he wins Ohio. Good luck with that.
Their choice is winnowing down to the disruptor against the zealot. The politics of resentment and racial division have blown up in their faces.
The Democratic Contrast: We Do Substance
The most notable contrast during the seventh Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan was not between Clinton and Sanders, but between the Democrats and the Republicans. As Andrea Bernstein, editor at WNYC, tweeted: “Democratic debate so far: guns, schools, health care, trade, infrastructure, transportation, welfare, racism. GOP debate last week: hand size.”
The Democratic exchange was feistier than normal. Clinton is perfecting the technique of interrupting Sanders, hoping to set off a testy explosion. The campaign and the press tried to make much of Sanders telling her “Excuse me, I’m talking.” But after the Republican melee, this is pretty hard case to make. Sanders remains the courtliest of contenders.
The Clinton Disavowal and the Obama Embrace
The Democratic debate featured tough exchanges on trade, Wall Street, big money politics, the auto bailout, criminal justice and even the Export-Import Bank. Clinton, on the defensive, is a smart and effective counter-puncher, willing to throw a low blow now and then when cornered. But two themes stand out:
To compete in this cycle, Hillary Clinton has had to separate herself from her husband's legacy: NAFTA, China and our disastrous corporate trade policies, mass incarceration and racially biased criminal justice policies, Wall Street deregulation and big money politics. She derides “debating the 1990s,” but has been forced to disavow the legacy and the impact of signature initiatives of the Clinton administration.
In her defense, Clinton continues to use Barack Obama as a shield. Her defense on taking Wall Street money: Obama did it. On opposing the break up of the big banks: Obama hasn’t. On the auto bailout: Obama wanted it as part of the Bush bailout of the banks. On support for fracking: Obama says it works.
This is a clever tactic in Democratic primaries where Obama remains popular. And Clinton will no doubt distance herself from Obama when the general election begins to paint herself as an agent of change. But at a time when voters are looking for real change, Clinton continually makes herself the candidate of continuity.
The Evolving Debate
The Flint debate offered not one question or word on foreign policy, other than the exchanges over trade and the Ex-Im Bank. Clinton has now adopted populist rhetoric and policies on multinational corporations moving jobs abroad, on CEO pay and abuses. This is both a testament to the effect of the Sanders campaign and smart politics.
Several exchanges demonstrated why Senate candidates have difficulty in presidential debates. Clinton skewers Sanders on votes by isolating specific measures within broader bills. Last night, she painted him as opposed to the auto bailout because he voted against Bush’s bank bailout bill. In reality, Sanders favored the auto bailout but voted against bailing out the big banks that blew up the economy. She defends herself on her support for her husband’s harsh crime bill by saying that Sanders voted for it. But in reality, Sanders warned against the harsh sentencing and death penalty provisions, while the Clinton campaigned in favor of them. In reference the crime bill, Sanders sought to educate voters on this reality last night:
There are bills in Congress that have bad stuff, there are bills in Congress that have good stuff. Good stuff and bad stuff in the same bill.
Now, if I have voted against that [crime] bill, Secretary Clinton would be here tonight and she’d say, “Bernie Sanders voted against the ban on assault weapons. Bernie Sanders voted against the violence against women act.” Those were provisions in the bill, as the Secretary just indicated. So, in that bill there was some good provisions, I have been a fierce fighter against domestic violence ever since I was mayor in Burlington.
Violence Against Women Act has protected millions of women in this country, it was in that bill. The ban on assault weapons, that’s what I have fought for my whole life. It was in that bill.
The exchange revealed the problem Senate candidates have, particularly against a sophisticated campaign operation like Clinton’s. They are damned if they vote yes and damned if they don’t. Clinton has used the tactic on the offense on the auto bailout and on the defense on the crime bill. She can get away with this because the press usually doesn’t expose the gambit and voters don’t know the context. Will it work against someone with such obvious integrity and commitment as Bernie Sanders? That remains to be seen.