At this point in the process, it is mostly the political junkies among us who are still willing to sit through two hours of a Democratic presidential debate. What most Americans will know about what happened in Wisconsin last night are various assessments of who “won” and who “lost” the debate as well as any sound bites one of the candidates might have produced. I think that is unfortunate. But it is the reality that we live with.
I’d like to take a moment to focus on whether anything new emerged from last nights debate from either candidate. Some of the ground that was covered was about things we’ve heard before. On domestic issues, we heard the same agreements and disagreements about the role of money in our political system and what each candidate proposes to do about Wall Street reform. Sanders continues to under-perform on the topic of foreign policy – relying on the charge that Clinton voted for Bush’s Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Iraq as a testament to her bad judgement. The two candidates have gone back and forth over these issues numerous times. So we didn’t learn much that is new from those exchanges.
As this race has developed, one of the things that has emerged is that Sanders has a clear vision for his candidacy while, as Martin noted recently, Clinton has been straddled with a “no we can’t” message about his grand ideas. Last night, particularly in her opening and closing statements, Clinton put out a new way of framing the difference. It is summarized by a line she used in her closing statement: “I am not a single- issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.” Here is how she went on to talk about that:
Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right.
But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday. And we would still have governors like Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions. So I’m going to keep talking about tearing down all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans fulfilling their potential, because I don’t think our country can live up to its potential unless we give a chance to every single American to live up to theirs.
What she is doing instead of saying “no we can’t” is to suggest that – in response to Sanders’ proposals – “they aren’t enough.” And then she went on to suggest what else needs to be done. That might be the most effective approach she can take as the pragmatist to his idealism.
When the question of immigration reform came up, Sanders raised a new concern about Clinton.
If my memory is correct, I think when we saw children coming from these horrendous, horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country. That was not, as I understand it, the secretary’s position.
Clinton responded by saying that “we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.”
This is a complex issue that is pretty difficult to tackle in the 90 second soundbites of a presidential debate. In that context, Clinton’s answer was weak. It is unfortunate that she didn’t include a reference to the need to work with the countries these children were fleeing as the long-term answer to the problem. It is also not likely that during a political campaign that a candidate can point to the fact that the influx of these children from Central America was exploited to harden the resistance to comprehensive immigration reform in this country.
When the discussion turned to criminal justice reform, Sanders made a promise he has stated previously, but never during a debate.
But, here is a pledge I’ve made throughout this campaign, and it’s really not a very radical pledge. When we have more people in jail, disproportionately African American and Latino, than China does, a communist authoritarian society four times our size. Here’s my promise, at the end of my first term as president we will not have more people in jail than any other country.
What he failed to note (that Clinton did mention) is that the majority of this problem rests with state and local governments and any president will have limited ability to impact that. It is why Tim Murphy wrote that Sanders’ plan doesn’t add up.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2.2 million Americans were locked up as of the end of 2013. Of those, only 215,000 inmates (9.6 percent) were in federal prisons. The rest were in state and local facilities. So even if President Sanders abolished federal prisons altogether, the United States would still have more prisoners than any other country by a pretty large margin.
One of the more interesting moments last night came in the discussion of foreign policy when Sanders attacked Clinton for her references to Henry Kissinger. A lot of liberals appreciated hearing that and Clinton did herself no favors by defending him. But the problem was that it launched him into an extended period of discussion about this country’s foreign policy failures in the 60’s and 70’s – including references to Pol Pot and the Cold War’s infamous “domino theory.” It wasn’t until the end of all that that Sanders made any connection to our current challenges when he tied it into trade policy. I’m not sure that whole exchange was productive for someone who is banking on the enthusiasm of young voters.
My overall assessment is that this was a serious and informative debate…but not the kind that is likely to change the trajectory of this race going forward.