AP Photo/David Goldman
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shake hands at the University of New Hampshire in Durham on Thursday during the final debate for Democratic presidential hopefuls before the New Hampshire primary.

Hillary and Bernie, Mano y Mano

Steve Russell

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has joined former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee and former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb as the Democratic Party also-rans no longer running. All three have impressive qualifications, but in terms of the public interest, the big story being ignored by most media remains the Democratic National Committee’s manipulation of the rules to keep Harvard Law Prof. Lawrence Lessig off the debate stage.

Lessig’s one issue—the poisoning of both parties by dark money since the Citizens United case established the rule of one dollar-one vote—is not an issue the Democrats want front and center any more than the Republicans do. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ refusal to field a SuperPac, the Democratic Party honchos believe, is survivable. Sanders is a full spectrum candidate and really wants to be president of the United States, unlike Lessig.

Sanders’ fulminations about one dollar-one vote are submerged in his stump speech on income inequality that has been his political signature long before he ran for POTUS. There is no way to do to a U.S. senator what the Democrats did to a Harvard Law Professor but marginalizing the Socialist is already underway, with Clinton supporter Sen. Claire McKaskill (D-Mo) anticipating Republican ads in the general election “with a hammer and sickle.”

Donald Trump has already called Sanders a Communist, banking on the voters not knowing the difference. That’s probably a safe bet, but so is another bet Trump has placed since Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won Iowa. The Cruz campaign committed a dirty trick in Iowa that Trump persists in holding up as an example of fraud. Cruz staffers claimed that Dr. Ben Carson was about to withdraw and proceeded to poach his delegates on the basis he was no longer running.

The talking heads understand that cheating on that level is common. Remember the Bush campaign claiming John McCain had come emotionally unglued in a North Vietnamese POW camp and, besides, he had adopted a black child? Remember the attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam War record?

Trump is not a politician and so he thinks fraud is fraud. Conventional wisdom is that he should quit harping on such a minor dirty trick. I’m betting Trump got it right when he bet that voters do not have the same tolerance for cheating that reporters do.

On the Democratic side, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has led the Democratic National Committee in a manner that made her thumb on the scales for Hillary Clinton visible. First, the DNC thwarted Lessig’s attempt to raise the dark money issue by changing the entry rules for the debate after he had qualified. Most transparently, the Democratic debates were limited when that was in Clinton’s best interests and expanded when Clinton’s interests shifted.

Leading up to last night’s head to head between Sanders and Clinton, the major news had been about the coin tosses that broke ties in Iowa coming down for Clinton and a silly dispute between the candidates over who is “more progressive.”

I guess it makes as much sense as the Republicans arguing over who is “most conservative,” but both conversations seem to be aimed at voters too ignorant to score issues as issues rather than brands.

A poll landed just before the debate showing Clinton 4 percent behind Sanders with women and 29 percent behind with young women in New Hampshire.

The right wing echo chamber on-line is having kittens about President Obama visiting a mosque for the first time in his presidency. Eight years; one mosque. Obviously, the guy is pro-Muslim, which is to say pro-terrorist.

One of the most loony of the bunch, David Horowitz, spammed a message, “Obama unmosqued,” which proved Horowitz does not understand sharia or statistics. Or, more likely, that he does. He claims sharia is “incompatible with the U.S. Constitution,” which is so if you take your Muslim cues from ISIS…which is roughly the same as taking your Christian cues from snake handlers.

This was the ambient political atmosphere when the two Democratic finalists went mano a mano at the University of New Hampshire.

Moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd made it known early on that their idea of moderation was minimalist, and each question was dropped like a hockey puck in a face-off. At first, both candidates tried to stick to talking points.

Clinton made her accusation about “starting over” on healthcare and Sanders gave it the brushoff it deserved.

Sanders did not make his accusation that Clinton’s “not progressive enough,” but Maddow brought it up by quoting statements made elsewhere. Then Todd asked Sanders if President Obama is a progressive.

Sanders gave it the brushoff it deserved.

Maddow asked how Sanders could lead the Democratic Party when he was not a Democrat. She brought up an election in Vermont where he had run against a Democrat and the Republican got elected.

Sanders replied that he had always caucused with the Democrats in Congress and had been elected to leadership positions by those same Democrats.

As to that election, Sanders noted that he had come in second and concluded (to the amusement of some in the audience) “the Democrat was the spoiler—not me.”

Clinton claimed to be amused that Sanders would characterize the person running to be the first woman POTUS as “establishment.”

Sanders should have answered with two words: Margaret Thatcher.

Clinton complained that Sanders was complaining about the sums of money she has taken from Wall Street without showing anything she had done quid pro quo. She referred to Sanders pointing to the money spigot where she has been drinking for years as an “artful smear.” That phrasing elicited a rumble from Sanders that would have presaged a torrent of meanness if he were Trump.

Since he is not Trump, he merely listed some areas where corporations have “invested” in Congress and the laws that have resulted. This led to a discussion of reforming the barriers among commercial banking, investment banking, and insurance that were let down when the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed with Bill Clinton’s signature.

Hillary Clinton repeated that she does not favor rebuilding Glass-Steagall and that her secret plan goes farther than Glass-Steagall.

So why not support re-enacting Glass-Steagall as better than nothing? She did not say and nobody asked her. The Wall Street crackdown argument degenerated into “My economists can beat up your economists.”

In the matter of whether any quid pro quo was involved in Clinton’s speeches, she was asked, “Will you release the transcripts of all your speeches for money?”

“I’ll look into it.” Say what? Did she sign so many confidentiality agreements that so many slipped her mind? What else would require looking into?

Best Sanders line of the evening: The business model of Wall Street is fraud.

Best Clinton line of the evening: A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS.

Todd asked Sen. Sanders a question about how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan for how long? Sanders stumbled several laps around the Hindu Kush but did not answer.

Todd also hit Sanders for not having revealed his foreign policy advisors or put out any white papers on foreign policy.

Maddow got both candidates on the record against privatizing VA health care. No surprise, but given the near unanimity among the Republican candidates it was a good idea to put them on the record.

Another matter of getting the candidates on the record involved the poisoning of the children in Flint, Michigan by the actions of an Emergency Manager appointed by the Governor, and the subsequent cover-up of lead poisoning by that same governor.

Should the federal government take action beyond what the state requested?

Clinton said yes, and then bill Michigan for the expenses.

Sanders agreed, to nobody’s surprise.

Neither explained where the federal authority to do that would come from.

Todd reminded Sanders of when the political right was extremely happy for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the political left felt the same way about George McGovern in 1972. The darlings of the right and the left were destroyed in the general election. Sanders said that will not happen to him because he will bring scads of new voters into the system.

Clinton was asked about her lack of support among young people.

“They may not support me now but I support them and we’ll work together.” Good answer.

Todd asked Clinton to prioritize among the three issues she had said would be most important: Immigration reform, gun safety, and climate change.

Clinton rejected the idea that prioritizing was necessary and claimed she could do it all at once. Bad answer.

Asked the same question, Sanders also refused to pick, but pointed out the two gateway issues for getting anything else done were campaign finance reform and tax reform.

Maddow asked Clinton about the Sanders plan for free public university education funded by a tax on regulated markets. Clinton reiterated she is against free public higher education because it can’t control the costs and it’s important for middle class kids—not Trump’s kids.

What’s the matter with her reaction? Trump’s kids won’t be going to a public school unless the free tuition becomes a magnet for wealthy cheapskates. The idea that free tuition would cause the children of U.S. swells to decamp the Ivy League is pretty silly.

As to controlling costs, the European countries that offer entry to any citizen who can do the work seem to get along fine.

Recycling a common question from Republican debates, Maddow asked Clinton if any federal agencies should be abolished or new ones created? No, Clinton said she wanted to make what is there work better rather than put the government through major surgery.

Who won?

The voters won, because the differences were highlighted for all to see.

Clinton ran circles around Sanders when the subject was foreign policy. Sanders is no Ben Carson, but, unlike Carson, he appears to know what he does not know.

When the subject was what Wall Street expects to get from the substantial sums of money spent on politics, Clinton’s demand that Sanders quit complaining unless he could show a specific quid pro quo rang hollow.

It’s worth some serious bucks to have your phone calls returned from the Oval Office and anyone who does not understand paying for access lives on another political planet.

That’s not an “artful smear.” That’s a description of how Washington rolls. Washington would in fact roll differently with a POTUS who rode to office on contributions averaging $27.

There’s a difference between $675,000 from Goldman Sachs that Clinton says won’t buy her and $27 plus a double scoop of Ben & Jerry’s that Sanders says won’t buy him.

Todd and Maddow lobbed the right questions to demonstrate the differences in the two campaigns and the candidates took the opportunities offered. Neither 2016 candidate is perfect, but they never are. All the voters can reasonably ask is a clear view of the differences and anybody who watched the first meeting between the Democratic finalists got that.

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