With so many people thinking the system is rigged and that politics has devolved into mere vulgar entertainment, the Democratic Party’s choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for its first presidential debate seems counterintuitive. That the casino in question bears the surname of Steve Wynn seems odd as well. In 2012, Wynn, once a Democrat of sorts, dropped $10 million on Karl Rove’s Super PAC. He’s gone on Fox News to lambaste Obama, whom he calls a socialist. His punishment: a ton of free publicity plus whatever it cost to rent the hall.
The Democratic National Committee delayed the debates as long as it could and limited their total number to six. By way of comparison, there were 26 debates in 2008. The first was held in April 2007; by this point in the cycle there had already been 13. To enforce its new limit the party threatens a drastic sanction: anyone caught participating in a rogue debate will be locked out of all party debates.
The phrase ‘Democratic National Committee’ is imprecise. When DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced the schedule last August she didn’t say who made the decision or how. Nor did anyone ask. It seems like an awfully closed system for an outfit with the word ‘democratic’ right there in its name. I wondered how the party picked it. Did its national committee hold a meeting? If so, was it public? Was there a notice, agenda, or minutes? Was there even a vote?
On Thursday I spoke to the DNC communications director, a nice man named Luis Miranda. After a few minutes of polite evasions I had my answers: no, no, no, no, no and no. From what I could glean, staff made recommendations to Schultz and she then made the call all on her own. It isn’t clear that party rules authorize her to do so. What is clear is that they shouldn’t. Miranda told me the party consults with all the candidates. I don’t doubt him, but the consultations don’t appear to mean much, in that four of the five candidates wanted more debates.
The fifth is Hillary Clinton, who recently said in a low whisper that she’s ‘open’ to more debates. Clinton is still the nominal frontrunner and the establishment choice. In 2008 Schultz was in the bunker with Clinton till the bitter end. Clinton is the only candidate in the field likely to retain Schultz in her present job or otherwise advance her career. There’s a good chance the only important consultation Schultz had was with Clinton. This should come as no surprise. Every four years party insiders tweak the process in hopes that some establishment favorite can wrap things up early. Due to the law of unintended consequences, and because these people aren’t nearly as smart as they think, this almost always backfires.
Republicans did it this year with delegate selection rules that starting March 15, Super Tuesday, award candidates who win a mere plurality of the vote all of the delegates. The idea was to save Jeb Bush, or some Bush doppelganger, the trouble of a long, messy nomination fight. Among the variables left out of their equation: Donald Trump and a field the size of the Boston Marathon. Their new nightmare: seven of their 15 candidates survive to Super Tuesday, when Trump gets 24 percent of the vote and 100 percent of the delegates, including in Florida where he waves adios to Jeb and Marco Rubio. That’s right. Trump’s only possible path to victory comes via rules meant to send him packing before he broke any crockery. Nice work, fellas.
Schultz’s brazen move to muzzle debate wasn’t any smarter. As Trump points out, debates are free advertising. Democrats could use some. The contrast with the Republicans might have helped. Trump’s made them so rabid Democrats could have scored points just by being polite. Debates could have helped Clinton by reminding voters there’s more to her than the email scandal. And they’d have gotten her outdoors. If she had her druthers, she’d never leave her comfort zone. It’s one reason Bernie Sanders could cut her lead from 60 to 16 points. By limiting debate Schultz is enabling Clinton, not helping her.
All of which raises the stakes Tuesday night. What Bernie Sanders has done is all the more remarkable for his having done it without benefit of a primetime debate and despite a virtual media blackout imposed by a know-it-all press. In 2008 Obama drew crowds half the size Sanders pulls and got written up like the Beatles at Shea Stadium. The press believes only in polls and money. In September 2007 Clinton led the young, charismatic Obama by 14 points after debating him every other week for six months. She still led by 8 in national polls the night he ran her over in Iowa. On the eve of their first debate she leads Sanders, a disheveled, 74-year-old socialist from Vermont, by 16 points. Last week Sanders’ finance report showed over a million small donors, better than Obama’s record 2008 pace. More impressive to the press, he pulled even with Hillary in total money raised. This week it began giving him some of the coverage he deserved all along.
In a primary, packed stadiums and an army of volunteers and small-dollar donors mean more than polls and Super PACs. Some say Sanders has hit his ceiling but he hasn’t even had a chance to reach his audience. Tuesday will be the first long look many centrist Democrats have had at him and the first time anyone has examined him side by side with Clinton. If he picks up as many points for his performance as Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio did for theirs, it will be an earthquake.
No one should underestimate Clinton’s forensic skills. She’s never lost a debate to anyone but Barack Obama and even those were close. There are two dangers for her. One is stylistic. Urged on by the media, her maladroit staff still pursues its five-year, 10-point plan to make her seem more “spontaneous” and “authentic.” These are the same folks who taught her to say ‘ordinary Americans’ and who pepper her speeches with the flattest jokes in the history of politics. Her best bet between now and Tuesday is to have as little to do with them as possible.
Clinton somehow translates ‘being authentic’ into being more like someone else, someone more ‘ordinary.’ In April she got in a van and rode from New York to Iowa. She named the van ‘Scooby’ even though it wasn’t hers, ate at a Chipotle and rhapsodized about people she met glancingly along the way. No one told her that ordinary people don’t drive 1,000 miles except in an emergency or on a camping trip, or that she’s far too old to be naming her van after a cartoon character.
Little has changed. Now she gets down with the common folk by flipping pancakes with Savannah Guthrie on the "Today" show. No one is fooled. She’s Hillary Clinton. She hasn’t touched a griddle since Bill got elected governor of Arkansas. The closest she’s come to seeming like a regular gal was on "Saturday Night Live" reading from a script written by sketch comedy writers for a TV show. If you’re a passionate, cerebral wonk, busting a move with Ellen or yucking it up with Jimmy Kimmel won’t make you seem any more real; just the opposite.
Clinton doesn’t need to be more authentic, she needs to be more honest. The email affair may go down as the ultimate example of the old saw that it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover up. I don’t know if she broke any law. I do know everything she said in that circus of a press conference at the UN has thus far proved untrue. And to what end? Imagine if she’d taken a different approach. Imagine if instead of all the folderol about the server being just for convenience, the emails being personal, and her being just the most transparent person ever, she’d looked straight into a camera and said something like this:
I don’t know all the facts but I know I made mistakes. I always meant to abide by the letter of the law. Americans are right to worry about the excesses and abuses that arise from government secrecy. If I’m your president, I promise you a truly open and accountable government.
She couldn’t say it because admitting fault comes hard to her, and because she doesn’t believe it. From her tenure as Secretary of State, from her remarks on the Edward Snowden case and for lots of other reasons we know her basic take on government secrets is ‘the more the better.’
This is her problem; misunderstanding many of the issues she studies so hard. She can’t speak with conviction of the evils of globalization, she spent years cheering it on and doesn’t really get what’s wrong with it. She can’t get too worked up about pay to play politics; she perfected it and still deems it the best way to win elections. After four years as Secretary of State she still doesn’t see the folly of exporting democracy by force of arms, or that our safety lies in the rule of law.
Clinton has reversed herself on two huge issues: the Keystone pipeline and the Trans Pacific Partnership. She’ll get less credit than she’d like and fume about how hard it is to satisfy liberals. But in making each switch she looked and sounded as if she were moving pawns on a chess board. She announced the Keystone decision in a blog that provided almost no rationale; the line the "SNL" writers gave her was stronger than anything she said about it in real life. Her TPP interview makes clear her commitment there is provisional. (She hasn’t seen the text) She speaks of jobs and currency but not a word on the issue many progressives find most galling, the ceding to corporate interests of the prerogatives of democracy. Nothing she’s ever said in public suggests she’s given that much thought.
Sanders faces different challenges. He takes justifiable pride in never having run an attack ad and has taken care throughout this race never to attack Hillary. On Tuesday he must lay out their differences and explain why they matter. It wouldn’t be ‘negative’ or personal, it would be logical and factual and also indispensable.
Bernie doesn’t have an authenticity problem. He is that rare politician who stood his ground and waited for the world to come to him. The bum advice he gets from the Zeitgeist consultants pertains to anger. They equate him to Trump, the idea being that both are vessels of populist anger. It’s only a tiny bit true. The violent rage of Trump’s base has to do with race, gender, sexuality and status. Those who feel it would be happy sitting in the audience of the Howard Beale Show, or just listening to Rush in their car. When Trump gets vicious they get a vicarious thrill.
The rest of America is over the condition of the middle class, the democracy and the planet. All they want to hear is a plan. Only a portion of the hard core of Bernie’s base is in the least bit dogmatic. They may like a little anger but what they really like is the truth. Sanders’ enemies hope to paint him as an ideologue and a grouch. He must make it through the night without giving them any ammunition.
Hillary’s recent epiphanies attest to just how much Sanders has moved the debate. If the TPP dies he more than anyone will deserve the credit. Trump has shown that a rich celebrity can succeed in politics without buying very many TV ads. Bernie’s proving that anyone can. In 2008 Obama built the biggest grass movement in the history of politics, but once he won he took it private. Bernie’s movement is built for his supporters and built to last.
Bernie’s miles ahead of Hillary on the issues that count the most but there are two things he still needs to do. The first is to speak more to the problem of public corruption and inefficiency. On most issues most voters are Democrats, yet Republicans run two of the three branches of the federal government and stand a very good chance of perfecting their monopoly in 2016. Voters want to know that the party of government is ready to fix the government.
The second thing he or any progressive must do is help people connect the dots: show how climate change, globalization, pay-to-play politics and mindless militarism reinforce one another, then offer them not just another liberal to do list but a coherent theory of the problem and a strategy for solving it rooted in values deeper than ideology. It’s been so long since any politician in America has done that and he’s one of the few who could. If he starts that discussion on Tuesday night, there’s no telling where this will all go.