Morry Gash/AP Photo
But the candidates, in a vain effort to distinguish themselves more than the facts warrant, end up whining about discourtesies that are nothing next to the flying buckets of mud in the Republican Primary.

The Bernie Hillary Show: Have the Democratic Debates Jumped the Shark?

Steve Russell

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders turned an expected rout by Hillary Clinton into a virtual dead heat in the Iowa caucuses and won New Hampshire—which has in the past favored both Clintons—by a landslide.

The focus now moves to South Carolina, where the African-American vote is critical, and Nevada, where the Latino vote is important. Sanders is expected to lose big.

The number of delegates needed to win is 2,382 of 4,763. Of those, 712 are “superdelegates.” The supers are public and party officeholders who function to make sure democracy doesn’t get out of hand. First, so the “correct” nominee will be selected, but also so the hoi polloi don’t gang up on the big shots and keep them from becoming delegates.

Former Secretary of State Clinton will get virtually all the supes. She already has 360 pledged. Only two House members and no Senators have endorsed Sen. Sanders. Clinton has 79 House members and 20 Senators. There is no question who the Democratic Party establishment considers to be the “correct” nominee.

Going into last night’s debate, Clinton had the more impressive resume. Her selling point is that she “knows how to get things done.”

The Democratic Party left, however, is wary of the style of governing that gave us terrible ideas like the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Defense of Marriage Act and—most pertinent to Bernie Sanders’s challenge – the Financial Services Modernization Act that destroyed the separations among commercial banks and investment banks and insurance.

The Democratic Party right still has scar tissue from George McGovern’s defeat. The very idea of nominating a socialist drives them up the wall.

Clinton’s problem is to maintain a progressive identity while still claiming Sanders is too progressive to be electable. Her argument is against making the perfect the enemy of the good, but she hopes to make it without shoveling dirt on Sanders. She also clings to an intemperate promise not to raise taxes on “the middle class,” defined as incomes under $250,000. Even if that were a realistic definition of “middle class,” it’s risky political pandering to make tax policy promises. Ask George H.W. “Read My Lips” Bush.

Sen. Sanders’s problem is to introduce himself to minority voters—very few of whom live in Vermont—and convince all voters he would not take the Democrats on a suicide mission in the general election. He has been clear that his ideas would require higher taxes, and the last candidate to admit a tax increase would be necessary was Walter Mondale.

Mondale suffered at the polls for telling the truth; the first President Bush lost reelection with a political overpromise. Both kinds of political hara-kiri have been the backdrop to the primary debates.

Sanders and Clinton argue like an old married couple, practically able to complete each other’s insults. The choice before the voters was fairly well clarified in the last debate before New Hampshire voting. Clinton is best qualified by experience and she’s been around long enough that the half-a-loaf compromises to which she was a party look awful now. Sanders best voices the injuries most people sustained in the Great Recession and the grumpy old socialist, ironically enough, channels the Republican Theodore Roosevelt arguing that banks “too big to fail” are too big to exist.

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Answering the bell in the sixth Democratic debate, Sanders spat out the numbers on the concentration of wealth and said it was about time government worked for the rest of us, which would amount to a “revolution.”

Clinton agreed with much of Sanders’s description of the issues but promised that her goal would be to “make progress.” This fits her idea of prudence. Don’t overpromise.

Since the Reagan revolution, fear of and even hatred of the federal government has been the zeitgeist of U.S. politics. The punch of that common understanding was behind a question to Sanders regarding how much should the percentage of GNP controlled by the federal government—currently 21 percent—be allowed to rise?

He didn’t answer and likely did not know the answer. He instead rattled off a list of problems that require federal solutions.

Clinton answered for him that her economic advisors claim Sanders would raise current federal funding by 40 percent, which would make the total just under 30 percent of GDP.

Clinton dove right into her disagreements with Sanders, one of which is her argument that his “Medicare for all” single payer health plan would involve dismantling Obamacare first, which she reminds us “used to be called Hillarycare.”

She warned that trying to re-litigate health care so soon after the bad feelings and pack of lies surrounding the Affordable Care Act would “gridlock government.”

Perish forbid somebody might propose something that causes gridlock. There’s plenty of gridlock without trying to do anything.

Clinton was asked what it is women in New Hampshire do not know about her that led them to vote for Bernie Sanders. She replied with her resume, unlikely as it is that anybody is ignorant of that. She ducked when asked to agree with her surrogate, Madeleine Albright, who said there is a “special place in hell” for women who do not support other women.

Sanders attacked the Republicans for advocating small government when a small government would be too small to police every pregnancy in the country and stand guard in every bedroom to enforce sexual norms.

Asked about the U.S. imprisonment binge that nobody last night was crude enough to blame Bill Clinton for (but should have), both candidates gave the sort of diagnosis that would resonate with any Indian who has watched state and local authorities operate in the border towns around a rez.

I would give Clinton extra points for pointing out that most of the reforms needed require the states to act.

Sanders played to his visionary stereotype when he promised that, if elected, at the end of his first term the U.S. would no longer have more citizens locked up than any other country in the world.

Sanders taught me something when he claimed that African-Americans as a group lost half of their wealth in the Great Recession. This is possible because, like other middle class folks, African-Americans had most of their assets tied up in the value of their homes rather than in a brokerage account.

Moderator Gwen Ifill took on the black community’s burden when she asked about studies recently showing that the life expectancy of white people is shrinking. Both candidates agreed that poor white people are still poor but racism remains an issue because it sits on top of poverty. Unless you count Indians, but I get weary of blacks and Indians arguing about who got a rawer deal between those who got their land stolen and those who got their labor stolen.

On the immigration issue, Clinton claimed that she voted on a comprehensive reform bill that Sanders voted against. That charge got my attention, but when Sanders got his turn he explained that the Southern Poverty Law Center gave out an analysis of the bill saying that the “guest worker” plan in it would amount to legalized slavery.

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)—the Hispanic equivalent of the NAACP—also opposed the bill, Sanders said. Clinton retorted that Sen. Edward Kennedy supported it.

Keep in mind that Clinton and Sanders were on the same side in policy terms, but that did not stop them from replaying the old debate.

Sanders eked out a small difference of opinion about deporting unescorted minors. Clinton thought it was necessary to “send a message” to their parents. Sanders argued you don’t use children in mortal danger to send messages.

Sanders and Clinton agreed on getting more money into the Social Security trust fund by taxing passive income, but Sanders wanted to raise the cap on the payroll tax as well and use the money to expand benefits.

The candidates then sparred over the significance of SuperPACs. Sanders does not have one and wants to shut them down. Clinton wants to shut them down but has one for which she blames the organizers. Any friendships between the organizers and the candidate are sheer coincidence.

The parts of the debate about foreign affairs demonstrated once again what Sanders admits—that Clinton has more foreign policy chops than he does. The Secretary of State is, after all, closer to the foreign policy levers than even the POTUS.

Sanders did attack Clinton for taking advice from Henry Kissinger, an attack that left me wondering how much of the current electorate remembers Dr. K?

Ever wonder how the U.S. wound up supporting a military dictatorship in Pakistan against the largest democracy in the world in India? That was Kissinger’s “tilt toward Pakistan.”

Ever wonder why the U.S. participated in the violent overthrow of the elected government in Chile? Kissinger.

Were you surprised when the U.S. abandoned promises to the government of Taiwan made since WWII to support the People’s Republic of China taking their seat at the UN? Kissinger.

Clinton complained that we don’t know where Sanders gets foreign policy advice. “Not Kissinger,” Sanders replied.

Asked to name two persons they admire in the foreign policy arena, one domestic and one foreign, Sanders named FDR and Winston Churchill. Clinton would replace Churchill with Nelson Mandela.

Sanders’ best line of the night came when Clinton was hugging her connections to Barack Obama and trying to argue that Sanders was opposed to Obama:

One of the candidates on this stage ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.

Clinton’s best line distilled the essence of her criticism of Sanders:

I am not a single-issue candidate and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.

There was enough repetition in this debate for me to ask—even though I was among those calling for more debates—whether the Democratic Party’s road-show has jumped the shark?

Clinton and Sanders, understandably enough, probably consider every debate high drama about the ebb and flow of political power, the kind of thing Shakespeare did with Antony and Cleopatra.

But the candidates, in a vain effort to distinguish themselves more than the facts warrant, end up whining about discourtesies that are nothing next to the flying buckets of mud in the Republican Primary. They are reduced to repetitive bickering that is not very enlightening or very Shakespearian. It’s more like Martha and George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

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