You don’t need me to tell you who won the Democratic debate. You can make up your own mind and probably have by now.
If you missed it, the press will gladly pick a winner for you. Don’t let them.
In 2000 Al Gore outshone George Bush in every debate but the press thought otherwise. To our emotionally arrested, intellectually undernourished reporters, politics is high school. We didn’t want to have a beer with Bush, they did. Gore struck them as a teacher’s pet and for that they were merciless to him. When he sighed audibly during one of Bush’s myriad lies, it got replayed a million times on TV. If you saw just that video, you thought Bush won. It helped him -- not enough to win the election, but enough to steal it.
Seeing what they had wrought, reporters felt so bad they never again stooped to horse race political coverage. Just kidding. Last Tuesday night they pronounced Hillary Clinton queen of all debates and the Democratic presidential race all but over. I’m less interested in grading candidates than in grading the debate itself, which had its moments but in the end fell well short of the conversation we so desperately need to have. The critical question is how to improve on it, but as a verdict has been rendered, I’ll offer a brief rebuttal. In reverse order of finish:
Jim Webb has no business being in this race, or for that matter, this party. He’s awful on affirmative action, gun safety, arctic drilling and digging up coal. He got Iraq right but he’s itching for a military showdown with China, or if not China, Anderson Cooper. There’s just no market for him, not among Democrats anyway.
Lincoln Chafee has no business being in politics. Before being appointed to his late father’s senate seat he was mayor of a Rhode Island city and it wasn’t even Providence. His multiple excuses for voting wrong on Glass-Steagall—he just got into town, everybody else was doing it, etc.—were on a par with ‘my dog ate my homework.’ He should go home now.
Martin O’Malley was so eager to bash Clinton on Glass-Steagall he neglected to say what it is or why it matters. He’s more presentable than Webb or Chafee but it’s the first time he’s ever tried to get to the left of anybody and it shows. He spent his whole life being a whole other kind of politician. It leads one to suspect that the only reason he’s the person he is now is that he saw an opening.
I wouldn’t normally be so hard on candidates who are struggling to do their best and who are by a lesser standard impressive people. But a point needs to be made, which is why some folks get on the stage and some don’t. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has persistently called for Lawrence Lessig to be included in early debates. Lessig is the Harvard Law professor running on an anti-corruption platform who in a few short weeks raised a million dollars in small donations. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the autocratic political operative who runs the DNC, didn’t want Lessig on the stage so he was left out -- while three men with no more support and a lot less to say were let in. I’ll come back to this, but suffice it for now to say that Democrats would have been better off giving Lessig the seat they were keeping warm for Joe Biden.
As for the frontrunners, if it were a high school debate I’d have to give it to Clinton. Say what you will of her, she does her homework and it shows. Being prepared relaxes you. A well-rehearsed line — “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done” -- will always be there when you need it. She’s too cute by half but she’s the best debater in the race in either party; on Tuesday she turned in the performance of her life.
Bernie won anyway. The reason goes to the heart of the race. Hillary is a living avatar of the Democratic Party in our time. What it does well--cultural issues and social programs-- she does well. When she talks about child care or family leave she’s passionate and sincere. What she and her party don’t do well is fight to end corporate control of government. She’s also weak on climate change, freedom of information, the right to privacy and, in matters of alleged national security, the rule of law.
Bernie won not because he outpointed her but because he’s strong on the issues on which she’s weak -- and because those are the issues that matter most to voters. Like our environment, our democracy and our middle class are at a tipping point. When Bernie talks about these crises, his sincerity and passion are unmistakable. For all her hard work, it isn’t clear Hillary even understands them. Having spent the '90s promoting globalization, and her adult life raising money from those who profit from it, she’s too wed to the system to see its fatal flaws.
It’s a big reason why, with the notable exception of Chris Matthews, the national press says Clinton won: they see the world as she does. Their common approach—pack journalism is such an ugly phrase—reflects the bonds that tie them to one another and to her. It’s why so many of them confuse Bernie’s populist anger with the xenophobic rage Donald Trump specializes in. When other elites are failing, the media elite are usually the last to find out. The system that elevated them to their perches may need tweaking, but not a ‘political revolution.’ If one were brewing it would reflect poorly on everyone they know.
Online polls say Sanders won. Other surveys may well give Clinton the edge. Voters had been put off by her cavalier handling of the email controversy, tone-deaf campaign and often wooden affect. Tuesday she seemed more relaxed and straightforward. But if you must look at polls, look at the numbers that show what voters think of Sanders and especially, his message. I think he’ll show well but regardless, there are things he must improve on. Some thoughts on the next round:
1. Bernie’s campaign model is spot-on; his debate strategy isn’t. His reluctance to go on the attack speaks well of him but drawing out real differences isn’t negative politics; it’s why we have debates. Clinton sure isn’t shy about it. On guns, the one issue where she’s to his left, she fileted him. But when she said things that are patently untrue, he never once corrected her. It goes partly to preparation. Hillary would pull an all-nighter to prepare for a debate. Bernie would rather chill. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the two best debaters I’ve ever seen, submit to grueling debate prep. Bernie should too, not just to expose her record but to defend his own.
2. Due partly to modern advertising and partly to our polarized politics, no one running for office ever explains anything anymore. In primaries, candidates do nothing but name-check issues they’re sure the base already agrees on. The few who want to explain issues find it hard to do. In a 30-second ad you can manipulate people’s hopes or manipulate their fears, but all the same it’s manipulation. Since reformers sell new ideas and new ideas take longer to explain, this tilts the field in favor of the status quo,
Sanders is really into policy, but less into explaining it. The heart of his campaign is a very big, very good idea. Maybe he thinks an idea so good is self-explanatory. It isn’t. He must explain it because it’s what separates him from Clinton and from every other candidate in the race. Sanders and Clinton agree on nearly every social program and cultural issue. Their major disagreement is whether such initiatives in themselves are enough to redress income inequality, wage stagnation and the slow, agonizing death of the American middle class.
Sanders believes global finance capitalism stands in the way; that far from being innovative and entrepreneurial, it has become predatory and parasitical. He further believes that its survival depends on its symbiotic relationship with pay to play politics and that if we’re ever to restore our democracy or our middle class the system needs to be not just tweaked, but transformed. Clinton not only cheered but participated in the invention of both systems. She believes the programs she’s so passionate about can get the job done. The vital question before the Democratic Party and the nation is which of them is right.
To repeat an earlier point: the tactical advantage is his. Excepting only gun control, on her strong issues he and she are in virtual lockstep. It’s his issues they disagree on and voters agree with him. It’s true of primary and general election voters alike. Labels confuse them: they like capitalism; they don’t like socialism. But once you get past abstractions they like what he has to say. All he has to is be logical and concrete and keep the focus on the right issues. But when he got hit with a question about socialism, that’s not what happened:
ANDERSON COOPER: You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?
SANDERS: We’re going to explain what democratic socialism is… it is wrong that the top 1/10 of 1 percent own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent... We should look to countries like Denmark, Sweden and Norway and learn from (them).
COOPER: The question is really about electability… the Republican attack ad against you writes itself…. You honeymooned in the Soviet Union…this weekend you said you’re not a capitalist...
SANDERS: Republicans win when there is a low voter turnout… that is what happened last November. Sixty-three percent of the American people didn’t vote… We are…creating excitement… Democrats will win, when there is excitement and a large voter turnout...
COOPER: You don’t consider yourself a capitalist, though?
SANDERS: Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.
Rubbish. Our capitalist system no longer allows people to “make a good living for themselves and their families.” The version of capitalism Hillary helped usher in doesn’t give “small businesses…opportunity and freedom” -- it eats them alive. She says Dodd/Frank is going gangbusters but since it passed nearly half our small, banks have gone bust or been bought up by bigger banks. It’s the new global oligarchs who turned their backs on “what built the greatest middle-class in history of the world,” not Bernie Sanders.
Capitalism never created a middle class here or anywhere else. It does a great job of creating wealth but an awful job of distributing it. We never had a broad middle class until labor and government together gave us Social Security, the GI bill, the 40-hour week, child labor laws, the minimum wage, a progressive income tax and workers’ rights. Later on, Medicare, Medicaid and historic civil rights, and consumer and environmental laws strengthened the social contract that is the true foundation of the American middle class. Shred that contract and you destroy the middle class. If you don’t believe, just take a look around. You can tell people you’re a socialist, but if you do you have to tell them what you mean.
3. We have to tell not just the truth and nothing but the truth, but the whole truth. That means contesting every point. It’s fine to tell Clinton you’re tired of politically motivated attacks regarding her emails. I am myself. But you must also say that her fondness for secrecy violates basic precepts of democracy and in the end actually lessens our security. It’s when we work in secret that we corrupt other nations, start illegal wars and subsidize future terrorists. She’s wrong on secrecy and wrong on the use of military force. It isn’t enough to say she voted wrong on Iraq, we have to tell people that our only real security lies not in force of arms but in the rule of law.
Bernie and all Democrats must address the problem of public corruption. It’s why Lessig would have helped focus Tuesday’s debate. We have laws on the books to close revolving doors, protect whistleblowers and insulate government contracts from undue influence, but they’re frauds. We didn’t clean up corruption, we institutionalized it. Pay to play politics is incompatible with the core principles of the Democratic Party. It isn’t enough to overturn Citizens United. We need a whole new political model. Bernie Sanders is showing us a better way to win.
The same people who told us back in March that Clinton’s email troubles didn’t matter because the election was still two years away now tell us the Democratic nomination is already settled. It isn’t. But we should keep in mind that the race is to decide not only who we’re for but what we’re for. We need more debates -- and we need the right debate. Bernie Sanders is the one person in the race poised to bring it. His message is one voters hunger to hear. If he lays it all out, everything changes.