Things change. There was the Los Angeles Democratic Presidential Debate, January 31, 2008, at the Kodak Theater (now the Dolby Theater) on Hollywood Boulevard, sponsored and run by CNN – and it was good to have a friend who was a senior executive at CNN because that meant press credentials. That debate was covered live here – and one should always take a camera. What was happening outside, just before the debate began, was amusing. See The Big Event and Gathering Opinion and The Media and Partisans and CNN Broadcasting – those links still work, sort of. You’ll get the idea. The crowds were strange as only Hollywood crowds can be strange, but this was the big face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, one on one – John Edwards was long gone. Enthusiasm ran high – cranked up to eleven.
This was a big deal, but even then it was becoming clear that Obama was going to win the nomination. He was cool. Hillary was a bit shrill, and depressingly conventional. Obama seemed smart and fresh, and deft in his responses, and her vote for the Iraq war sunk her. Wolf Blitzer asked her why she just wouldn’t say she was wrong. She wouldn’t go there – she said she had been right, but Bush didn’t understand what she and others really wanted, coercive diplomacy, not war. Yeah, sure – there was no reaction from the audience. It was embarrassing.
The rest, as they say, is history. Obama won the nomination, and then the presidency, and then won the presidency again. Hillary Clinton became his secretary of state, and before the Republicans knew she’d be running to succeed Obama, had said she was doing a fine job. Now they all say she’s the worst secretary of state we’ve ever had – but that was to be expected – Benghazi and all that. Still, she learned a thing or two. She knows all the players. She knows their motivations. She knows the complexity of all the disputes in all the hot spots. She no longer falls back on conventional bullshit. She grew. It will be interesting to see her mop the floor with Donald Trump in the autumn, if it comes to that. He’s all bullshit, but we’re not there yet. Where we are is eight years and a few days later, and the debate this time was with Bernie Sanders, and far from Hollywood. Durham, New Hampshire, is far from Hollywood in every imaginable way.
There is a parallel of course. This was the big one on one – Martin O’Malley is long gone – but this time Hillary Clinton mopped the floor with Bernie Sanders. This was not embarrassing. She knew her stuff. He didn’t. His thing is economic justice – taking back the country from the billionaires – but that’s all he’s got. It was his answers on foreign policy that were embarrassing this time. She may be the only fully competent person, from either party, running this time. She no longer does conventional bullshit.
That was the tone of the thing and not just on foreign policy. The Washington Post’s account shows that:
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, meeting Thursday night for their last debate before the New Hampshire primary, squared off fiercely on the question of whether the party should strive toward its liberal aspirations or set its sights on the achievable…
Clinton used her opening statement to needle the senator from Vermont, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, over what she has contended are unrealistically liberal plans for universal health care, free college and other programs.
“I’m fighting for people who cannot wait for those changes, and I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” the former secretary of state said.
Sanders replied that a number of European countries had approved single-payer health-care systems. “I do not accept the belief that the United States of America cannot do that,” he said.
He doesn’t seem to know how hard it is to get things through a hostile Congress, as Obama learned, and then there was the personal stuff:
Sanders, who enjoys enormous enthusiasm among the party’s liberal base, continued to make the argument that Clinton is too heavily dependent on those who have financed her campaign and made her personally wealthy. He said that he does “not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. I am very proud to be the only candidate up here that does not have a super PAC.”
Clinton accused Sanders of engaging in a “very artful smear” of her character. She insisted she had never changed her position on any issue based on having received contributions from special interests.
“Senator Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth,” Clinton said.
That is a tricky business, addressed earlier in the day by Greg Sargent:
Sanders constantly points to the funding of her campaign – and her acceptance of speaking fees – as symptomatic of this problem. But Sanders does not want to take the final step and say that Clinton personally is making the policy choices she does precisely because she is beholden to the oligarchy, due to its funding of her campaign. The upshot is that Sanders is indicting the entire system, but doesn’t want to question the integrity of Clinton herself – or perhaps doesn’t want to be seen doing that. This is the central tension at the heart of Sanders’s whole argument.
That caught up with him, but there was Kevin Drum:
Is it true that Sanders is just too nice a guy to name names? Maybe. But I’m a little less inclined to be generous about this kind of thing. To my ears, it sounds more like typical political smarm. “Hey, I’m not saying she’s a crook. I’m just saying she drives a pretty nice car, amirite?” Contra Sargent, I’d say that Sanders is very much questioning the integrity of Clinton herself, and doing it in a pretty familiar way.
After the debate Drum said this:
Hillary was more aggressive than I’ve seen her before. Her complaint early on that Bernie was slandering her with innuendo and insinuation (and “artful smears”) was tough but, I think, also fair. And I have a feeling Bernie felt a little embarrassed by it. He was certainly careful to pull things back to a civil tone after that. Hillary is not a natural campaigner, but she’s a good debater, and this was Hillary at her pugnacious best.
And there was that other matter:
Sanders, pressed earlier about his experience in foreign affairs, repeatedly cited his 2002 vote against the Iraq War as evidence that he could be trusted to make foreign policy decisions.
“Experience is not the only point. Judgment is. And once again, back in 2002 when we both looked at the same evidence about the wisdom of the war in Iraq, one of us voted the right way, and one of us didn’t,” Sanders said, addressing Clinton.
Clinton voted in favor of the war, a vote that has become a centerpiece of Sanders’s case against her. But Clinton offered a counter-argument. She has apologized for the vote, but said that Sanders’s vote was not enough.
“We did differ. A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS” in the present day, Clinton said, using another name for the Islamic State.
She grew, and he only offered this:
Sanders, asked to give more details about his foreign policy, said it flows out of the experience of the Iraq War. “That lesson is… the United States cannot do it alone. We cannot be the policeman of the world,” Sanders said. He added: “The key doctrine of the Sanders administration would be, no, we can’t continue to do it alone. We need to work in coalition.”
And the sky is blue. This was conventional bullshit, as Kevin Drum notes here:
Obviously foreign affairs are not Bernie’s strong point, but I was still a little surprised at just how poorly prepared he was to say much of anything or to draw much of a contrast with Hillary’s views. Either he really doesn’t know much, or else he thinks his dovish views are losers even among the Democratic base. I won’t pretend that Hillary was a genius on this stuff – almost nobody is on a debate stage – but at least she sounded well briefed and confident.
And during the debate:
Bernie really needs to have a foreign policy other than “I voted against the Iraq War.” … Why is there bipartisan loathing of being “the policeman of the world”? What does this even mean?
I hate to say this, but Bernie on North Korea sounds about as well briefed as Donald Trump. Very strange situation. Handful of dictators – or, um, maybe just one. Gotta put pressure on China. “I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.”
Bernie does himself no favors on national security. I’m closer to his position than Hillary’s, but Bernie honestly sounds like he’s never given this stuff a moment’s thought. At least Hillary has some views and sounds confident in her abilities.
Drum was not impressed at all:
On financial issues, Bernie was surprisingly weak. This really is his strong point, but he continues to have a hard time getting much beyond platitudes. I get that it’s a debate and 90 seconds isn’t much, but it’s still enough time for a little more detail than “the system is rigged.” Hillary didn’t do much better, but she held her own and gave a strong response to the two (!) questions about her Goldman Sachs speeches.
Drum sees how this all plays out:
Bernie insisted that we can dream. Hillary insisted that we figure out what’s doable. I’d score it a clear win for Hillary based on her aggressiveness and generally solid answers compared to Bernie’s platitudes and obvious reluctance to attack hard.
And then there’s Josh Marshall:
I think we have two basic questions coming out of this debate – vision for the Democratic Party and electability. Nor are these questions distinct. The issue of electability goes to the heart of the vision for the party, since it goes to the root of questions about pragmatism, risk aversion, settling for half or quarter loaves or ending up with nothing. After several of these encounters – after last night and tonight – these basic questions, dividing points seem very clear and well-illustrated.
In terms of the debate itself, the first segment was very hot. In part, the pressure of the campaign is boiling over in the exchanges between the two. Campaigns involve millions of people, with each candidate as a fulcrum for the directives, hopes, antipathies, aspirations of so many people. The intensity of emotion, pressure, and the stakes can be overwhelming. And you could see some of that coming out this evening.
That said, I also think the Clinton camp made a decision to shake things up, to push Sen. Sanders maybe more than he’s used to being pushed. It got intense and kind of personal.
But the differences were clear:
Sanders has the virtue of coherence, a tightly argued, interlocking set of critiques and explanations of what is wrong, how the different parts fit together and what he believes needs to change. There’s very little of that with Clinton. It’s more of a barrage: I’m going to do my best to improve things on each front. I’m also going to protect our gains.
Bernie Sanders is the kind of people I come from. I like the guy a lot. I could explain the various ways. Some negatives and positives. I think he’d be cut to pieces in a general election. As a general matter, I think Democrats underestimate the structural challenges to winning the 2016 election with any candidate. And the damage Sen. Clinton has sustained to perceptions of her trustworthiness is a big, big deal in political terms – though I think many Democrats are dishonest with themselves not recognizing the concerted campaign from the right that is behind much of it.
With all that said, though, I’ve become more impressed with her over the course of the campaign. The hours-long Benghazi testimony was a turning point for me – not because of the political optics but because of what it showed me about her steadiness and the depth of her knowledge. She strikes me as a far more seasoned and experienced person than she was eight years ago.
Yeah, she grew:
In a way that’s hardly surprising. She served as Secretary of State during a critical four years. In all of these debates, when the topic is domestic policy she’s a candidate. When it moves to foreign and national security policy, you can see that’s where she lives. I think that’s clear whether you agree with her or not. The confidence, grasp of a broad range of topics is very clear. The difference in tone is clear.
As I said, the basic divisions – in many ways ones of tone and manner more than policy – seem very clear.
Perhaps she won this debate, and won it all this one night – maybe. David Graham at the Atlantic puts it this way:
In their first one-on-one matchup, the duo seemed determined to illustrate Archilochus’ classic binary between the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Sanders knows that what the country needs – the only thing it needs – is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them.
Which do you prefer? Obama was a Fox – he drove those on the idealist left nuts with his calm willingness to consider compromise, until he finally realized those other guys wouldn’t ever compromise on anything – but he was, for a time, willing to go there, simply to get things done. In fact, Obamacare was a compromise. It wasn’t single-payer, just a way to subsidize the purchase of private insurance in the old system, and add a few sensible rules and regulations. Hillary is the same kind of fox. Bernie is wrong – forget the single-payer idea he’s pushing – it cannot be passed by any Congress in this sorry world. Improve Obamacare. That’s it. There is no more. Obama said “Yes we can!” He was misunderstood. That was conditional. There is the real world. We can do a bit, and we should. Hillary is saying the same thing. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good and all that. Do the possible. Good stuff is better than no stuff.
That’s what she was saying in this debate, but Brent Budowsky, who has been around Washington forever, offers the other view:
Young people do not support Sanders because he is cool. They support Sanders because they believe he is real, honest and authentic in an age when politicians are obsessed with who gives them the money to purchase their policies and buy television campaign ads laced with platitudes, spin and often falsehoods.
Young people and many independents and others support Sanders because he believes in the power and nobility of the dream, while cynics claim those dreams are “naive” and “unrealistic” and should be abandoned before the battle to make them come true has even begun.
Thank goodness the Roosevelts and Kennedys never heeded such words of caution and calculation when they waged their heroic, uphill and ultimately successful battles to create Social Security and Medicare.
Of course single-payer healthcare will not be enacted during the next president’s first hundred days, but it is a dream that’s come true for citizens in democratic nations around the world. It should be praised and not mocked; why can’t Clinton support adding a public option to ObamaCare, as President Obama himself proposed?
Just do it:
Instead of conducting focus groups about what position to take, Clinton should convene a private meeting with 10 young women who support Sanders to chat about their dreams, views and aspirations.
There are reasons why Sanders is opposed by virtually the entire political, Wall Street and corporate media establishment that for many months has turned coverage about America’s decision to choose the next leader of our great nation into an idiot’s delight of nonstop homage to the bigoted insults and phony conservatism of Donald Trump.
These establishments, which are courted by Clinton and challenged by Sanders, are among the most distrusted institutions in America.
The message that Clinton needs to hear – and needs to understand – is that despite her overpowering and overwhelming advantages of money and power and the virtually unanimous support from the Democratic establishment, it was Sanders who won the most important battle of the Iowa caucuses by fighting her to a draw.
Instead of attacking Sanders for having dreams too great, the former first lady should share with the nation the dreams she has, without fear or favor about which interest group might be offended. She should speak of her dreams with passion, principle, courage and authenticity with her voice, as Sanders does with his.
And so on and so forth – there’s more – but there is the simple counterargument to all that. Oh, grow up. She did, and if nominated, which is likely, that’s what she’ll say to Donald Trump or whoever they finally come up with. Now THAT will be a debate. This one was just a preview. Hillary Clinton learned a few things in the last eight years. This is a long way from Hollywood, which is, after all, a silly place.