Rachel Maddow made them fight: She's the reason for the tense Hillary/Bernie fireworks

As a moderator, Maddow dazzles—she pushes the candidates on touchy issues, and then hugs it out in the end

Published February 5, 2016 8:15PM (EST)

Rachel Maddow   (AP/Chuck Burton)
Rachel Maddow (AP/Chuck Burton)

It was, finally, the moment Democrats have been waiting for: Former Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders facing off one-on-one, unencumbered by extraneous candidates and audience questions. Last night’s MSNBC debate crackled with heat, as the two candidates stood very close to each other on stage and made their case to the watching public, answering questions from moderators Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd. It led to both candidates becoming their most provocative—Clinton was forceful and dismissive, while Sanders was stern and evasive. The first hour exacerbated the tension between them, as both candidates seemed to entrench in their worldviews, no matter how unpopular. The two bickered over the definition of the word “progressive”—it comes from the word “progress,” did you know?—and of who, exactly, is part of the “establishment.” As I observed yesterday, during the CNN Democratic Town Hall, both Sanders and Clinton were attempting to finesse compromises (or the semblance thereof) between polar opposites, the rhetorical equivalent of walking the plank. But debates are about differentiation, and primaries are about being choosy, so here we stood, watching mom and dad argue after dinner as if the whole state of the free world depended on it.

Things got kind of intense. They dug into each other’s differences, trying to make sound untrue what is patently obvious to the outside observer: Sanders is a stubborn college professor, obsessively dedicated to principle; Clinton is a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, doggedly focused on process. And frankly, neither candidate is served by a debate. This isn’t an election where adulation for a candidate’s ideology swept the other nominees, à la then-Senator Barack Obama in 2008. This is an election between two pragmatic, prickly politicians, two grandparents who have been in public service for decades. Debates make them fighters. And while this head-to-head match-up was long overdue, the first segment of the debate was honestly exhausting to watch, especially after the introspection of the informal town hall. Perhaps the Democratic party is just a little too bleeding-heart to revel in the bloodsport of two strong liberal politicians trying to take each other down, but it certainly seemed that every attack made from one candidate to the other looked mostly bad for that candidate; when Clinton railed against Sanders for his “artful smear” of her politics, she was booed, and when Sanders dismissed Clinton as a shill of the establishment, he dismissed for the obvious fact that a woman candidate for president is a revolution in and of itself.

Process and principle sparred again and again, and moderators Maddow and Todd did well to let the two speak while also finding incisive, specific questions to address to each. It’s difficult for any moderator to hold a candle to Rachel Maddow, but especially when grilling both liberal candidates, she dazzled. She directed a question to Sanders that struck to the heart of the practical difficulties of his platform—asking him how he planned to work with the corporations that advanced progressive agendas, those corporations that had to be dealt with to pass the Affordable Healthcare Act, for example. She asked Clinton for the chance to see the transcripts of those Goldman Sachs speeches. Maddow asked Sanders how he really intended to win the presidency as, essentially, a third-party candidate. And she asked Clinton to justify how she still considered herself a viable candidate, multiple scandals into her career. If Sanders and Clinton were bickering, last night, over the custody of the American people, Maddow was the impish child playing them against each other; indeed, the night’s most heated exchanges came as a result of her pointed questioning.

Which might be why about halfway through the debate, the tension of night noticeably defused. Maybe Sanders and Clinton wised up to Maddow’s game; maybe it was too late in the day, and too late in the campaign trail, to waste so much energy on being angry on television. Of course Clinton’s farther right than Sanders; come the general election, she’s going to be trying to appear moderate. Of course Sanders’ policies will be a bit harder to enact than Clinton’s; he is, in his own words, literally instigating a revolution.

The segment on foreign policy allowed the candidates to take a breather; Clinton immediately was more confident, going over her area of expertise, and diverted from his primary issue of capitalism, Sanders was a bit of a wallflower, allowing for some breathing room in the discussion. By the time Todd and Maddow returned to discussing the scandals of the campaign, both candidates seemed like they’d gotten the sparring out of their system. A question about Clinton’s emails elicited a steadfastly neutral response from Sanders: “There's not a day that goes by when I am not asked to attack her on that issue, and I have refrained from doing that and I will continue to refrain from doing that.” And when Maddow asked Clinton if she wanted 30 seconds to discuss an allegedly misleading advertisement from the Sanders campaign, Clinton just stared a bit, with an exasperation she deployed well at the Benghazi hearings, and then simply responded, “No.”

It was a very parental “no.” Final, but with some warmth attached. And it indicated a deep respect for either the other candidate or for the optics of cooperation, which often are exactly the same. I think that Sanders and Clinton have real issues with each other, but I also think that neither Sanders nor Clinton really want to fight with each other, and at the end of the day, despite the whiz-bang of the zingers, neither do we. Beyond the artificial dichotomy of the debate, Sanders and Clinton are all we've got—two viable candidates against a stack of wildcards that are still funded and still in the race over on the other team. Of course, calling them Mom and Dad is reductive and gender-essentialist; I am being a little facetious. But there's a certain degree of unearned faith I'm pinning on both that is the same desperate confidence we all invest in our parents, when we need to believe them when they say that they will keep us safe from danger. And it's not just me that feels it. As is the habit of kids everywhere, Todd rushed into the awkward camaraderie between the candidates with a too-soon, too-intimate question.

Secretary Clinton, you've made it clear when you look at Senator Sanders, you do not see a president, but do you see … do you see a vice president? [Clinton laughs.] Would you unite the party by trying to pick Senator Sanders as your running mate?

There’s no better evidence of the Democratic Party’s desperate desire for a united front against the looming specter of loony Republicans than this question, the political equivalent of politely asking mom and dad if they will get back together. The debate was revealing, but the questions were even more so; arguments about how to arrange the deck chairs gave way to the realization that the Titanic is sinking. Sanders quipped, “On our worst days, I think it is fair to say we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.” The crowd cheered. And after closing statements, when Maddow and Todd said goodbye to the candidates, Maddow made sure to hug each.

By Sonia Saraiya

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