Democratic Debate: Visions Clarified

In many ways, last night’s Democratic debate (especially the first half) clarified the different visions Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have for this country. Clinton wants to build on the gains we’ve made during the Obama era and Sanders thinks we need a fundamental restructuring of our health care, finance and political systems. That is the basic question Democrats are being asked to consider in this primary.

Just prior to the debate, Sanders released a plan for how he would pay for his proposal on single payer health insurance. And he’s been pretty clear about his approach to Wall Street. But what I found most interesting were a couple of his exchanges about how he diagnoses the problem in our politics. We all know that both he and Clinton have plans for how to reign in the influence of money. But when the moderators asked about how the candidates would deal with the political polarization that exists today, Sanders made it clear what he sees as the source of the problem. Here are a couple of excerpts:

What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward — it’s Medicare for all — it is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry. That’s what this debate should be about…

In all do respect, you’re missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress, it’s not the Republicans and Democrats hate each other.

That’s a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do…

All of us have denounced Trump’s attempts to divide this country: the anti-Latino rhetoric, the racist rhetoric, he anti-Muslim rhetoric.

But where I disagree with you, Governor O’Malley, is I do believe we have to deal with the fundamental issues of a handful of billionaires who control economic and political life of this country.

In other words, Sanders made it clear that he thinks the sole source of political polarization is the influence of money in politics. I doubt you will find a Democrat who would disagree that it is a problem. But is it the only thing that divides us? That is a question worth considering.

For example, when it comes to Congress, that analysis totally dismisses the fact that there are ideological differences between both individual members and between the two parties. On the Republican side, it doesn’t strike me that the Freedom Caucus is motivated and/or controlled by the influence of big money. There is the play for power that is almost always a factor in the divisions we see. Sanders is right to suggest that it’s not as simple as thinking that the two parties hate each other…there is a lot more at stake than that.

And of course, when it comes to the American people, we’ve all seen how over the decades politicians have exploited the very real divide that is caused by the kind of racism, sexism and nativism that is being articulated by Donald Trump.

The United States is a large very complex society. The roots of issues like our partisan polarization are not so easily narrowed down to one single cause. While it is true that money plays a role, when we assume it is the only reason for our divisions, we do what Sanders does so often…dismiss our actual differences and accuse our opponents of being corrupted by money. That was essentially his charge in a recent ad titled Two Visions.

What we are witnessing right now is that there are signs that the control money has on our presidential politics is increasingly being challenged. In the Democratic presidential primaries, that goes all the way back to Howard Dean’s 2004 primary challenge through the success of Barack Obama as the one-time insurgent candidate who took on the establishment in a campaign fueled in large part by small donors. On the Republican side, the current primary campaign is all about the fact that big money from superpacs is having almost zero influence on the outcome.

It is important that Democrats not simply ignore these changes, but understand them and find ways to build on what’s changing. But I suspect that gets back to the original difference between Clinton and Sanders that was clarified last night: do we build on changes that are currently underway or ignore that and try to restructure the whole thing?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.