For a good time, try Manchester, New Hampshire, on a Saturday night – said no one, ever. That’s a place where nothing’s happening, ever. The wildly transgressive comic and cultural critic Sarah Silverman was raised in Manchester – her mother had been George McGovern’s personal campaign photographer and founded a theater company, a bit of a rebel too – but Sarah is long gone from that dull little city. What does one do there on a Saturday night?
Perhaps you watch Saturday Night Live from New York City – or perhaps you attend the third Democratic debate of this cycle, televised live from that uninteresting place, on a Saturday night, for some reason. In New York Magazine, Rebecca Traister, along with many others, was dumbfounded that the Democratic National Committee had gone out of its way to reduce viewership for its debates. The first two were both held on Saturdays, and this one was on the Saturday before Christmas. Do they really want to lower the profile of the party that badly? Traister was appalled:
The high quality of the debate – the knowledge, experience, good cheer and respect shown all around – again called into question the inane decision-making of the Democratic National Committee. Why on earth are they trying to hide their smart, capable, appealing candidates from the world? The Republicans terrify the nation practically every week with their racist, sexist showboating, yet somehow the Democratic Party thinks it wise to hide their competent alternatives away. I get the theory that DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz tucked these debates away in an effort to put her finger on the scale for Hillary; this may well be the case. But it’s a really bad case, succeeding only in giving the impression that Clinton needs special help when in fact she’s killed it in two of the three debates so far. Bernie Sanders has been great too, and the idea that only a tiny fraction of the country will have tuned in is terrible for the Democratic Party and its front-running candidates.
What are they hiding? The New Yorker’s John Cassidy wonders about that too:
The Democratic National Committee made a big mistake staging the third Presidential-primary debate, which was held at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on a Saturday night, when millions of potential viewers wouldn’t be watching. The debate was lively, informative, and civil. Apart from a brief diversion into whether former President Bill Clinton, should he become the first First-Gentleman of the United States, would be entrusted with selecting flowers and menus for official occasions – his wife said that he wouldn’t – it was also substantive. And excluding, for a moment, Martin O’Malley, it reaffirmed the choice facing Democratic voters: experience, moderate reformism, and vigorous engagement abroad (Hillary Clinton) versus passion, an assault on privilege, and an abiding skepticism about overseas military engagements (Bernie Sanders).
Those are real differences, differences of substance. Once again we will have to decide how we want our country to proceed in the world. George Bush didn’t work out. Some say Obama has been too passive. Many feel that Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican candidates want to bomb everything and everyone and take us into multiple wars on multiple fronts. This was the alternative, and Cassidy explains each:
Clinton – who went in with a big lead in the polls – projected calm, confidence, and a command of the issues. About the only slip-up she made was being a bit late back from a bathroom break, which left her lectern briefly unoccupied. Throughout the debate, she seemed almost as intent on appealing to voters in the general election as she was on cementing her position atop the Democratic polls. To this end, she issued a firm pledge not to raise taxes on households earning less than a quarter of a million dollars a year, said some kind words about American enterprise, and insisted that she has a workable plan to defeat ISIS and protect the United States against the threat of terrorism.
And there was Bernie Sanders:
He railed against an economic and political system that had been “rigged” for the benefit of the ultra-wealthy. He gave a rousing defense of his progressive domestic agenda, which includes breaking up the big banks, abolishing tuition fees at public universities, and investing a trillion dollars in infrastructure. Somewhat unusually for Sanders, he also invoked some personal details, describing his humble upbringing, in Brooklyn, and calling on Americans to join his effort to bring about a “political revolution.” He, too, promised to crush ISIS, but he differentiated himself from Clinton by saying that this goal must take precedence over removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
Oh yeah, the other guy:
Martin O’Malley sought to promote himself as the technocratic voice of a new generation – much like Bill Clinton did when he faced George H. W. Bush, in the 1992 general election. The former Maryland governor made some good points, especially about the need to preserve liberal values in the fight against terrorism. Occasionally, however, he overdid the youthful bit: after all, at the age of fifty-two, he is hardly a stripling. At one point, he was showered with boos from supporters of the two senior citizens in the race.
Forget him, and forget the guy on the other side:
All three candidates were understandably keen to criticize the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, and they each made a good show of it. O’Malley didn’t wait long. In his opening statement, he rolled out the F-bomb, saying that America would defeat the challenge of ISIS but only “if we hold true to the values and the freedoms that unite us, which means we must never surrender them to terrorists, must never surrender our Americans values to racists, must never surrender to the fascist pleas of billionaires with big mouths.”
Clinton was a bit more diplomatic, but only a bit. Asked if the millions of Americans who agree with Trump about his proposed ban on non-American Muslims entering the United States were wrong, she said, “Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make them think there are easy answers to very complex questions,” she said. A bit later on, Clinton claimed that statements by Republicans, and especially Trump, “fan the flames of radicalization…”
Sanders said that Trump’s popularity reflected the fact that Americans are fearful of another terrorist attack, but he also placed it in the context of stagnant wages, rising inequality, and widespread disaffection with the political process. “Somebody like a Trump comes along and says, ‘I know the answers. The answer is that all of the Mexicans, they’re criminals and rapists. We’ve got to hate the Mexicans. Those are your enemies. We hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We’ve got to hate the Muslims.’ Meanwhile, the rich get richer,” Sanders said.
Okay then – they are the alternative to all that – but that’s where things get interesting:
On Syria, all of the candidates agreed on the need to strike ISIS from the air and to raise a Sunni army to attack jihadi fighters on the ground. As usual, Clinton sounded the most gung ho. She expressed support for the Obama Administration’s policy of sending special-operations forces and ground trainers to Iraq and Syria. She also repeated her call for the establishment of no-fly zones inside Syria, which she said wouldn’t necessarily involve shooting down Russian and Syrian government planes because the zones would be “de-conflicted” – whatever that means.
That means the Russians, bombing ISIS and the opposition to Assad, and the Syrians, bombing the opposition to Assad and ISIS now and then, maybe, would notify us of each of their sorties, as we bomb ISIS, but not the rebels opposed to Assad, who we consider the good guys, so no one bumps into each other in the air. That’s easy enough, but if we’re not shooting down Russian and Syrian government planes, who would we be shooting down in this no-fly zone? ISIS has no air force – not one plane or helicopter or anything. This is the “warrior” solution to a dire problem that simply doesn’t exist.
Bernie Sanders seemed exasperated. Sending special-operations forces and ground trainers to Iraq and Syria, and all this bombing, was a bad idea:
He quoted Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who has said that Muslim troops should do the fighting, and (echoing Trump on this issue, strangely enough) he asserted that the United States could not fight ISIS and Assad at the same time. After expressing concern that “Secretary Clinton is too much into regime change and a little bit too aggressive without knowing what the unintended consequences might be,” Sanders went on: “Yes, we could get rid of Saddam Hussein, but that destabilized the entire region. Yes, we could get rid of Qaddafi, a terrible dictator, but that created a vacuum for ISIS. Yes, we could get rid of Assad tomorrow, but that would create another political vacuum that would benefit ISIS.”
We need to think this through, and that goes for domestic issues too:
In confirming her pledge not to raise taxes on any households making less than two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, Clinton said, “I don’t think we should be imposing new big programs that are going to raise middle-class families’ taxes.” Sanders, however, was quick to point out an important implication of this commitment, which would exempt all but the richest two or three per cent of American families from the possibility of paying more to the Treasury: it rules out the introduction of any new programs modelled along the lines of Social Security and Medicare, which are financed by universal taxes.
“She is disagreeing with FDR on Social Security, LBJ on Medicare, and with the vast majority of progressive Democrats in the House and the Senate, who today are fighting to end the disgrace of the United States being the only major country on Earth that doesn’t provide paid family and medical leave,” Sanders said. He claimed that his own proposal for paid leave would cost the typical household just $1.61 a week. “Now, you can say that’s a tax on the middle class. It will provide three months paid family and medical leave for the working families of this country. I think, Secretary Clinton, $1.61 a week is a pretty good investment,” he said.
Slate’s Jamelle Bouie says that this exchange over taxes perfectly sums up the fight for the soul of the Democratic Party – but Cassidy notes that Clinton insisted that “she could finance paid leave by raising taxes on the wealthy” – and really “she didn’t pay as much lip service to the anti-Wall Street, soak-the-rich wing of the Party as she had in previous debate” – which led to this:
When ABC’s David Muir asked her, “Should corporate America love Hillary Clinton?” she replied, “Everybody should.” It was a good line, and it drew laughs from the audience, but it also carried a political message. “Look,” Clinton went on, “I have said I want to be the President for the struggling, the striving, and the successful.” Sanders weighed in with a much less modulated response: “The CEOs of large multinationals may like Hillary,” he said. “They ain’t going to like me, and Wall Street is going to like me even less.”
But aren’t billionaires people too? If black lives matter, then… no, she didn’t go that far, but Cassidy sees this:
At time when many Democrats, particularly younger ones, have moved to the left, Clinton’s efforts to appeal to the middle ground could conceivably cost her some votes in the primaries. On the other hand, with the specter of a President Trump or a President Ted Cruz looming over them, many Democrats may decide that it is time to unite behind the candidate whom the Republicans fear most.
Trump changes everything, and this Democratic debate featured this exchange about Donald Trump:
MUIR: You have weighed in already on Donald Trump… What would you say to the millions of Americans watching tonight who agree with him? Are they wrong?
HILLARY CLINTON: Well I think a lot of people are understandably reacting out of fear and anxiety about what they’re seeing… Mr. Trump has a great capacity to use bluster and bigotry to inflame people and to make think there are easy answers to very complex questions.
Kevin Drum is not impressed:
I suppose this is the “right” answer in some sense, but if you take seriously the framing of the question – what would you say to Trump’s supporters? – it’s condescending and offensive. You’re telling them that they only support Trump because they’re scared, not because they have legitimate beefs. That’s not likely to win many converts.
Drum suggests these alternatives:
#1: Trump is a mediocre businessman. He talks big about his golf resorts, but they don’t make a lot of money. His casinos in Atlantic City went bankrupt because he managed them poorly and didn’t understand the business. He doesn’t have a lavish property empire. He’s built or renovated half a dozen major buildings, and they’ve done OK but nothing more than that. There’s no evidence that he negotiates especially great deals, just fairly routine ones. He’s thin-skinned and goes to court – or threatens to – over every perceived slight. Basically, Trump inherited a lot of wealth and hasn’t done all that much with it. Someone should ask him to show us financial statements for his development business. Not licensing and TV. Just development. How much have earnings increased over the past decade? What’s his return on equity? Return on investment? Etc.
#2: Trump is a blowhard, and we all know blowhards, right? They BS constantly because they don’t know squat. They talk big and they never deliver. That’s Trump. What makes anyone think he’ll deliver on all the BS he’s ladling out right now?
Drum adds this:
Trump has built two successful businesses based on being a blowhard. He has a nice licensing business, and he made a nice chunk of change from The Apprentice. That’s about it. In every business that required him to actually deliver something concrete, he’s been average or worse.
Trump has built his campaign on the proposition that he’s a great builder and a great negotiator, and for some reason his opponents have all let that slide. I don’t really understand why. Take away his mouth and he’s just another guy who inherited a bunch of money from his father and used it to build a middling business. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it hardly makes him a dazzling executive, either.
Well, she didn’t say that, and Josh Marshall sums up the debate this way:
So, good debate for each of the candidates. And that’s good for Hillary Clinton since she’s already in a strong lead. Thankfully, Clinton and Sanders put the data-breach nonsense to bed quickly and I think basically ended it as a story, at least as a controversy between the campaigns. The discussions on economic policy were about what we’ve seen before, with each candidate staking out their different positions – with Hillary hugging as close to Sanders’ populism as she feels she can and Sanders simply not temperamentally inclined to go after Clinton as ruthlessly as he might.
What interested me most in this debate was the discussion of foreign policy, particularly national security policy on the Middle East. It was wildly more substantive than the histrionic ranting and demands for fear from the GOP debate.
Everything you want to know about that data-breach is here – but that story really is over. Sanders doesn’t want to go after Assad, to change the regime there, just ISIS, to end an immediate problem, and the Guardian’s Lucia Graves finds that far more interesting:
Clinton painted Sanders as presenting a false choice, suggesting the clear dichotomy he described was born of foreign policy naivety. “When we look at these complex questions, I wish it could be either-or,” she said. “If the United States does not lead, there’s not another leader, there’s a vacuum.”
That last line drew considerable applause – and recall that Saturday was the Democratic debate, with a less hawkish audience. If it plays well here, that line will play better later in a general election. That calculation may well be at the heart of Clinton’s strategy: she wants to make the case that she’s tough on foreign policy before the general election, and doesn’t mind coming off a little hawkish during the primary to get there.
That leads nowhere good:
Rhetorical devices aside, her foreign policy positions aren’t so different from the more centrist Republican candidates – leaving aside those who have threatened to raze entire countries with nuclear weapons. As The New Republic’s Suzy Khimm observed, Republicans in last week’s Republican debate “failed to articulate a vision for change in the fight against ISIS that was fundamentally different than what Clinton is calling for”.
Any noises that Republicans have made about no-fly-zones in Syria or about the arming of Kurdish fighters – while they’re to the right of the Obama administration’s current positions – fall nicely in line with Clinton’s.
She’s offering what they’re offering. And Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution up the coast here at Stanford, asks the real underlying question:
The United States has been at war with ISIS for more than a year, and with Islamic extremism for nearly a decade and a half. But beyond defending the homeland against terrorism, U.S. leaders have not offered a compelling answer to this vital question: What is it that America is fighting for?
All we got was this:
From the very beginning, the unifying American principle has been freedom. For almost two and a half centuries, Americans have held these truths to be self-evident: that all people “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Among these were the natural rights to institute a government “of, by and for the people”; to think, speak, publish, worship, assemble, and organize freely; and to have these rights protected by an independent judiciary.
We want that everywhere, but that hasn’t been going well:
Over the last decade, democratic progress ground to a halt and freedom has been receding, for a number of reasons. The debacle of American intervention in Iraq, which was justified in part as a “democracy promotion” exercise, soured the U.S. and other Western publics on the goal of trying to support the spread of democracy, even by peaceful means. The shambles in Iraq, the rise of China, the aggression of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the tentativeness of American leadership have also diminished American prestige and influence in the world. And in poorer countries, democracy has struggled against long odds due to weak states, massive corruption, and low levels of education.
You can’t beat a surging ideology with no ideology or higher sense of purpose. In the face of the persistent challenge of violent Islamist extremism and the global recession of freedom, what the world has needed is a powerful reaffirmation of the universal relevance of liberal values.
That may be a pipe dream:
The assault on liberal values has been a defining feature of the democratic recession. During the past decade, democracy has typically ended not with tanks rolling in the streets or the president shutting down parliament, but rather in suffocating increments: with a regime steadily rigging elections, limiting opposition rights, taming independent media, and criminalizing the work of independent organizations. This was the playbook by which Putin took Russia from a quasi-democracy into a personal dictatorship, dependent on xenophobic nationalism and international conflict for its legitimacy. The script has been copied in varying degrees by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, his populist authoritarian soulmates in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, and by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, among others.
And one thinks of Donald Trump:
Historically, authoritarian populists have thrived at the ballot box when voters feel angry, alienated, and insecure. It’s not just physical insecurity (terrorism, violence, and war) that inclines people toward political extremes. Rapid social change and economic insecurity leave people feeling threatened and unmoored – susceptible to chauvinistic, anti-immigrant slogans.
We’ve been here before:
Common to right-wing populist movements is the nativist instinct to stigmatize and divide, to propagate simple answers to complex policy challenges, and to blame some “other” – a vulnerable minority, a corrupt elite, malevolent external forces, or typically some conspiracy among these – for people’s anxieties. This is the common ground on which Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban, Marine Le Pen, and Donald Trump stand. While they differ in their implications for democracy (or in the extent to which they have so far had the opportunity to damage it), they share striking similarities in the tone and content of their appeal. Most strikingly, the far-right populists in Europe and the United States share a strong current of respect, or even open admiration, for Putin.
Hillary’s not there yet, but what is it that America is fighting for? That’s what these debates should be about. Trump has an idea – humiliate the rest of the world and bend them to our will – we win, they lose. Bernie Sanders has an idea – make this country work for everyone, even if the rich howl, and don’t mess around in foreign parts for no good reason. And Hillary Clinton has something sort of in between, for those who would prefer to muddle through the next eight years.
Perhaps the Democratic National Committee was wise to schedule this debate up in boring Manchester on a Saturday night when no one was watching. You don’t want voters thinking about such things.