Finally, America is getting some Democratic events on weeknights — when there's a chance we'll be watching instead of living our lives that happen away from the internet or TV sets.
The CNN town hall for Democrats on Wednesday night was another reminder that the party should get both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in front of voters as much as possible. Both candidates are smart and engaging and reflect well on the party, and the sense that they are debating each other, even in a town hall, only serves to sharpen their arguments and make both of them more appealing to voters.
More of these, please!
Sanders came out strong, handling a number of complex, hard-hitting questions about his policy proposals. The first question, about how he can justify a tax raise on struggling middle-class workers, was a tough one, and Sanders handled it perfectly: He argued that a $500-a-year tax raise to pay for single-payer health care would be offset by not having to pay $5,ooo a year in health insurance premiums. And while there is debate over whether Sanders's plan would be as inexpensive as he says, he is not wrong to say that the cost of it has to be weighed against the cost of insurance premiums — and that single-payer countries have lower health care costs than we do.
Sanders' ability to explain his policy ideas in straightforward, understandable terms is untouchable, and clearly why he's able to get popular support for ideas that other politicians would be afraid to campaign on. It wasn't just on the issue of taxes: On police brutality, veteran's care, and even on foreign policy, often considered his weak point, he offered thorough but easy to understand answers. His faith that people will believe in you if you just take the time to explain yourself is contagious.
Sanders' down-to-earth routine is showing its seams, however. He claims he doesn't attack opponents, but he immediately pivoted into arguing that Clinton is basically a Wall Street stooge and even going so far as to imply that Clinton doesn't take climate change seriously. He dismisses the importance of polls, but uses them to bolster his argument that he's electable. Sanders' personal charm and political skills have distracted from these aspects of his campaign for a long time, but as the election drags on, these shell games which all politicians play, of course, but which he holds himself above---are becoming a little more obvious.
But the harder contradiction to swallow is Sanders' appealing reasonableness when it comes to issues of policy with his pipe dreams about the political process. Whenever he's explaining how his proposed policies work, it sounds very reasonable and doable.
But when he's tasked with explaining how he'll get those policies passed in the first place, he sounds like an 18-year-old college student who thinks that the only thing standing between liberals and getting our way is wishing hard enough for it. When asked about how he'll pass these laws, Sanders trotted out his boilerplate line about how his "revolution" would cause a sweep of progressive representation in Congress that, he seems to think, would make it a breeze to get things like single payer to work.
This is silly. Sanders is a charming, inspiring politician, but he's not a wizard. There's increasing turnout and there's doing it enough to actually change the makeup of Congress, and there is no evidence that Sanders can do the latter. Even Barack Obama, who has charisma to burn, wasn't able to create a revolution at the polls.
But point this out, and Sanders and his supporters immediately pivot to talking about how good he is at compromise. Sanders did this during the town hall, talking about how he compromised and massaged his veteran's health care bill in order to get it passed through Congress. Which is an admirable political skill, but is also the kind of behavior Sanders portrays as capitulation and corruption when it comes to every other Democrat out there, but especially his opponent, Clinton.
Like Sanders, Clinton had a great town hall, handling even hostile questions about her policies with ease. Just as Sanders handled the tax raise question ably, Clinton was able to use a provocative question about "interventionist" foreign policy to highlight her extensive experience on foreign policy — and to portray herself as an honest person, in contrast with dishonest sorts, such as everyone who worked in the Bush administration.
The biggest difference between the two town halls was the focus on issues of personality. Clinton's likability, as a person, was put more front and center with questions about why young women supposedly don't like her or her long history of dealing with extremely personalized right-wing attacks or, in the strangest question of the evening, how she can balance the ego necessary to be a politician with the religious duty to humility. In many cases, the questions were well-intended, but it's hard not to shake that creeping feeling that the focus on personality says more about the double standards women are held to in politics rather than anything Clinton herself, whose personal style would be utterly unremarkable if she were a male politician.
Of course, you can't be a woman in this world without getting good at it, and Clinton handled all these questions really well, even the humility one. She's clearly made her peace with the gendered implications of such questions and uses them as an opportunity to talk about her feelings and other such stuff that men don't have to talk about, but women have to, lest they get accused of being ice monsters. This was particularly effective on both the right-wing attack question, where she revealed that such stuff does stress her out (before pivoting to how she learned to be strong), and on the humility question, which she used as a chance to talk about family and love. It's all very Oprah Winfrey, but clearly what you need when you're vying to be the first female President.
Both candidates had the most fun talking about their right-wing opponents. Sanders made a well-placed crack about how he wants Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee. Clinton's unwillingness to give into pressure to back off her '90s era accusations about a "vast right-wing conspiracy" – instead arguing that it's right out in the open for all to see — was equally fun. It's become cliche at this point to note that these Democratic events, with their civility and focus on ideas, are notable for how different they are from Republican events, which quickly devolve into a competition over who can be the dumbest and most bloodthirsty-sounding. So it's nice to see the candidates talk out loud about how the other party is a sea of the worst, most irritating people imaginable.