Chuck Burton/AP
Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders after the Democratic forum.

Democratic Forum: Trust on the Half Shell

Steve Russell

The most important public interest in the Democrat Party’s candidate forum (not a debate, they said) was disrespected by who was not there. The candidate who missed the party had something more critical to say than the three who made it, and it would be good if every notice of this forum led with the statement he was not allowed to make.

When Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig became convinced the Democrats would do whatever it took to keep him out, he put his supporters out of their misery and explained why on video:

The system is corrupt. It’s that corruption that explains Donald Trump and Ben Carson as phenomena. Democrats refuse to engage the issue of corruption because they are feeding at the same trough.

Donald Trump is back in the Republican lead after trailing Ben Carson briefly. In the July Quinnipiac Poll, 58 percent of the voters did not trust him.

Hillary Clinton has led the Democratic side from the get-go, and 57 percent don’t trust her.

Neither party has much to write home about in the issue of corruption.

It’s true that the Democrats and the Republicans disagree on what to do about the country’s problems. It is not true that they are equal science deniers, so there’s something to be said for noticing the greenhouse effect, being able to read an aggregate demand curve—generally tethering to reality.

But Lessig is right that nobody can get anything done when job one is raising money. One dollar-one vote is the death of democracy and the Democratic Party cannot abide having the only candidate on the stage who has nothing to lose by dealing with that issue. If Lessig had been allowed to play, it would have been a different game.

Even as a forum rather than a debate, Lessig’s corruption issue would have dominated the serial discussions each candidate had with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. It would not have been possible to ignore it and she would not have tried.

Bernie Sanders made the strongest case against the corruption of corporate money and it’s great that he is the only candidate without a SuperPAC, but if the Obama years have taught us anything it should be that a POTUS cannot govern by himself.

Martin O’Malley was his likeable self, and of the three remaining contenders after the demise of Jim Webb, Lincoln Chaffee, and Lawrence Lessig, O’Malley is best in touch with the generational divide. Among the kids, he pointed out, you don’t find climate change deniers or immigrant bashers or anti-gay bigots. I quit teaching five years ago, and that’s where my students were.

O’Malley was also able to describe private for-profit prisons as “immoral” and “wrong.” What he’s not been able to do is raise enough money to do more than make himself available if Sec. Clinton stumbles.

RELATED: ‘Cash for Kids’ and the Many Sins of For-Profit Prisons

Bernie Sanders has solved the fundraising problem the same way Barack Obama did, with small donors tapped repeatedly. Obama’s average contribution before Clinton dropped out in 2008 was a little over $100. Sanders is getting a little over $30. When donations are that small, you have to get more of them. A lot more.

Sanders advocated a carbon tax and a law that bans fossil fuel extraction from federal land. I presume he means going forward, because you can’t just revoke a producing lease. These policies make me feel the Bern, but I’m not sure how he thinks he can make them happen.

Because Sanders has seen very few wars he liked, it was fair for Maddow to ask him what he would do about ISIS. That organization, he said, represents “a battle for the soul of Islam.” If he is correct, then the warriors who should die over the theological dispute should be people with a dog in the fight. The boots on the ground should be Saudi boots, Emirates boots, Turkish boots. Moderate Islam is the majority but it’s not our job to defend it.

Does Sanders agree with President Obama sending special ops forces into Syria? No, he does not. It’s a quagmire and it’s not our quagmire. Feel the Bern or don’t, he was clear.

Sec. Clinton was not so clear, but her fog was much more highly polished. No one should doubt her work ethic. She was as ready as Maddow, who had read every interview with the candidates to the end of not asking them questions they had answered in the past.

This forum was focused on the South and broadcast from the South, so Maddow chose to point out that, upon leaving the White House, the Clintons went to New York. “Should we read anything into that?”

Clinton cut loose with a long list of ties to Arkansas.

She taught me something I did not know, that Marian Wright Edelman of Children’s Defense Fund fame was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Clinton’s first job out of law school was with the Children’s Defense Fund.

She came out for a “new New Deal,” no great risk among people who remember the New Deal, but it led logically to Maddow’s pointed question about Clinton’s Wall Street connections. In my words—not Maddow’s—how can we trust you to muck out the stables when you are tight with the people who profit from mucking them up in the first place?

Anybody who knows her, Sec. Clinton claimed, would know she could be trusted to screw her friends when the public interest requires it.

If Clinton had the opportunity to learn one foreign language, which one would she pick and why? She answered without hesitation Spanish, because there are so many people in this country who speak it and she would like to communicate with them.

That, like all of her answers, was the right one.

She only ducked on one question. Suppose, Maddow asked, it became necessary for the good of the nation to field a unity ticket and you had to pick one of the Republican candidates as your Vice President, who would you pick?

After trying several ways to squirm out of the question, and observing that her endorsement would destroy whomever she mentioned, Clinton put down her foot with this demurral: “I could pick a Republican—just not one of them.”

Rachel Maddow, PhD from Oxford, is both the smartest of the talking heads and the least obnoxious because she does not scream or interrupt. Her sense of humor helped pump up the entertainment value, but the Democrats just will not get down in it and roll around like the Republican candidates. They don’t disagree enough to chew on each other’s legs.

Maddow hit O’Malley on his pitiful poll numbers, Sanders on gun control, and Clinton on her Wall Street ties. Maddow did the best she could with what she had, but what she did not have was Lawrence Lessig, and that was a wound on both entertainment value and the public interest put there by the Democratic Party.

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