Everyone needs a break from Donald Trump now and then. He may lose the upcoming Ohio primary to John Kasich but that doesn’t matter much. He’s got the Republican nomination. All the scenarios that have him being denied that nomination in a contested convention end with the Republican Party disintegrating and shutting up shop. They’re not going to let that happen – and we do have another political party – the boring Democrats, who actually pretty much agree on everything.
It’s easy to overlook them. They argue about how we get to where we should be, not where we should be. Do we move in careful sensible steps, incrementally, or shoot for the moon? Their policy arguments are about means, not ends, which makes their disagreements a bit arcane and not much fun at all. They have no Donald Trump arguing for torture and banning all Muslims from America and building a giant wall that Mexico will pay for. They’re sensible. What fun is that?
But on a day that was quiet on the Republican front – Marco Rubio still won’t drop out, Ted Cruz is still sneering and still loathed by every Republican in office, and John Kasich is still trying to talk some sense into these people – the Democrats did have a debate, and that was the excitement for the day. There are two other people running for president, and they tried to make this dramatic:
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, just one day removed from a stinging upset loss in the Michigan primary, used Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate to launch sharp attacks on her rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders, criticizing him as too far left at some points, but also seeking to cast him as an ally of far-right militiamen on the subject of immigration.
The debate was sponsored by Univision and The Washington Post, and conducted in both English and Spanish: the candidates spoke only English, but questioners and moderators often spoke Spanish before being translated.
Clinton was asked, in English, how the hell she managed to lose Michigan after all the polls had her running away with the thing. She shrugged. These things happen, and she still won more delegates that night, given her blow-out win in Mississippi. So what? There were bigger fish to fry:
Clinton returned to arguments she has made in the past about Sanders’s sweeping liberal policy ideas, arguing that they are unrealistic: too complicated, too expensive, and too hard to pass. “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Clinton said.
That’s what Democrats argue about these days, but this was curious:
Sanders may have hurt himself, at least in Florida, with comments that edged close to the state’s traditional political taboo: praising the Castro regime in Cuba. Moderators played a 30 year-old tape in which Sanders – then the socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt. – praised Castro’s regime and criticized past efforts to overthrow him. Sanders said that the Cuban regime was autocratic, but also praised its results in improving health care and education on the island. He got cheers. But when Clinton criticized Sanders for praising the communists in Cuba, the cheers were louder.
It was another argument about the wrong means for the right ends, but there was one bit of rather stunning personal honesty in the debate:
Clinton made an unusually personal admission of her political failings in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, saying that politics “isn’t easy for me.”
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama, so I have a view that that I have to do the best I can,” Clinton said, in a response to a question from moderator Karen Tumulty about why so many voters consider Clinton untrustworthy, even after so many years in public life. “And hope that people see that I’m fighting for them.”
Hey, she admitted it! She’s not good at this stuff, and then there was the context:
That admission, ironically, came after a powerful moment, in which Clinton came close to doing what her husband Bill Clinton was famous for: making an audience feel someone’s pain. A woman in the audience had described the difficulties she had faced after her husband, an undocumented immigrant, was deported.
Sanders had responded to her emotional question with a promise to help, by changing U.S. policy as president. “The essence of what we are trying to do is to unite families, not to divide families,” Sanders said.
Clinton began her response by focusing on the woman herself. “Please know how brave I think you are, coming here with your children to tell your story. This is an incredible act of courage that I’m not sure many people really understand. And I want you to know that,” Clinton said.
That was her best moment, but this wasn’t:
Moderator Jorge Ramos asked Clinton about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed – including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Clinton was the secretary of state at the time, and Republicans have raised questions about whether Clinton had properly prepared State Department installations in Libya for attacks, and about whether she had misled the public about the cause of the attack.
When Ramos began to ask the question, the debate’s audience began to boo at the mention of the word “Benghazi.” He kept on, playing the tape of a relative of one of the four who died, who said she believed that Clinton had misled her about the attacks – saying they had been reactions to an anti-Islam video, rather than planned terrorist attacks.
“She’s wrong. She’s absolutely wrong,” Clinton said about the woman. She said that the explanation she had given to the families was based on what she believed at the time – which was later found to be incomplete and partially incorrect. “This was fog. This was complicated.”
That was a mistake. Americans don’t believe anything is complicated, really. There’s always a simple answer, even if there isn’t, but Kevin Drum says it’s more than that:
I think Hillary Clinton is careful, a little bit paranoid, and, ironically, congenitally honest on policy issues. She just can’t bring herself to give simple-minded answers when she knows perfectly well the truth is more complicated. But especially this year, when her competition is a guy like Bernie Sanders, this just makes her look evasive and insincere.
After 40 years in the public eye, I don’t know why Hillary is still so bad at this. But she is. For a long time, liberals mostly forgave her wary speaking style because they were keenly aware of the Republican smear campaign that birthed it. Now, for the first time, there’s a generation of liberals who don’t care about any of that. And an awful lot of them loathe her.
She should have known better, but at least there was a bit of political news:
Both candidates seemed to break with President Obama on the subject of immigration in Wednesday’s Democratic debate, with both saying that they would not deport children who were living in the U.S. illegally – a rejection of the Obama administration’s decision to deport children along with their families, if they have arrived recently and have been ordered deported by the judge.
“Stop the raids. Stop the roundups,” Clinton said, after close questioning by Univision moderator Jorge Ramos. “I will not deport children. I do not want to deport family members, either.”
Sanders agreed, saying that he agreed with Obama on many subjects, but “he is wrong on this issue of deportation.”
Yes, they both said Obama was dead wrong on this:
The Obama administration has been criticized for these deportation raids, which focus on immigrants who arrived recently from countries in Central America, were not granted asylum in the U.S., and then were ordered deported. American authorities have said they want to deter future waves of illegal immigrants, especially waves of children travelling alone.
That makes sense, but not emotional or perhaps moral sense, so that was something, and this wasn’t:
In the debate’s early going, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Clinton who had given her permission to use a private email server for government business. “It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed,” Clinton said. “There was no permission to be asked.”
Would Clinton drop out of the race, Ramos asked, if an FBI inquiry into her use of those emails ended with her being indicted?
“That is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question,” Clinton said.
She wasn’t going there. Bernie Sanders let that go too. And she may be right – the Republicans only wish there’d be an indictment. That really isn’t going to happen. What was classified was classified years after the fact, and it’s minor stuff that had already appeared in the newspapers at the time. There’s nothing there – but after Whitewater and Vincent Foster and whatnot back in the nineties, she’s used to this sort of thing. She’ll let that play out.
Those are snippets from the Washington Post account of the debate. The New York Times makes all this a bit more dramatic:
Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders clashed vividly over immigration reform and deportations during a contentious debate in Miami on Wednesday night. The two Democrats made aggressive appeals to Hispanic voters while also making the case that each would be the strongest candidate against Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, in the general election.
Mrs. Clinton, bruised by her surprise loss in the Michigan primary a day earlier, relentlessly attacked Mr. Sanders for opposing a 2007 bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Aiming her remarks at the large Hispanic audience watching on Univision, a Spanish-language sponsor of the debate, Mrs. Clinton portrayed herself as a defender of immigrant parents and children and argued that Mr. Sanders was not a fighter on the issue.
“We had Republican support,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We had a president willing to sign it. I voted for that bill. Senator Sanders voted against it.”
She refused to let up when Mr. Sanders explained that he thought the guest worker provisions in the bill were “akin to slavery.” Mrs. Clinton argued that she, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Hispanic groups would never have supported such a bill. Her broadsides finally became too much for Mr. Sanders when she accused him of supporting “vigilantes known as Minutemen who were taking up outposts along the border to hunt down immigrants.”
“No, I do not support vigilantes – that is a horrific statement, an unfair statement to make,” Mr. Sanders said. “Madam Secretary, I will match my record against yours any day of the week.”
Oh, snap! But really, the two each did their thing:
Mrs. Clinton stuck to her promise to “knock down barriers” in employment and housing and to champion criminal justice reform and Social Security, hoping these priorities would inspire Hispanics, African-Americans and the elderly and deliver her landslide victories in Florida and North Carolina.
Mr. Sanders’s rallying cries against the “rigged economy” and “establishment politics” were aimed at liberals, young people, working-class white voters and independents who could be decisive for him in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, his top targets next week.
It was more of the same, but these two did have their moments:
“Secretary Clinton prevailed upon the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, who wanted to do the right thing and provide driver’s licenses to those who were undocumented,” Mr. Sanders said. “She said, ‘Don’t do it,’ and New York State still does not do it.” He also noted that he had supported allowing children from war-torn Central American countries to enter the United States and asserted that Mrs. Clinton’s view was “send them back.”
“That is something that is not fair about what I said,” Mrs. Clinton said. “I did say we needed to be very concerned about little children coming to this country on their own, very often, many of them not making it, and when they got here, they needed, as I have argued for, legal counsel, due process, to make a decision.”
It did get a bit catty, and then Karen Tumulty asked Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders directly whether they consider Donald Trump a racist. She was egging them on, daring them to use the word. Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has the video – they didn’t take the bait, with Clinton saying this:
If I’m so fortunate enough to be the Democratic nominee, there will be a lot of time to talk about him. I was the first one to call him out. I called him out when he was calling Mexicans rapists, when he was engaging in rhetoric that I found deeply offensive. I said basta [cheers from the audience] and I am pleased that others are also joining in making clear that his rhetoric, his demagoguery, his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system – especially from somebody running for president who couldn’t decide whether or not to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. So people can draw their own conclusions about him. But I will just end by saying this. You don’t make America great by getting rid of everything that made America great.
Clinton called what Trump had been saying “un-American” and she would “not engage in the kind of language that he uses” – but she wasn’t going to use that word.
I think that the American people are never going to elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults African-Americans—and let us not forget that several years ago, Trump was in the middle of the so-called birther movement trying to delegitimize the president of the United States of America. You know, I find it very interesting. Karen, my dad was born in Poland. I know a little bit about the immigrant experience. Nobody has ever asked me for my birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin.
That was sly and clever and closer to calling Trump racist, but he wasn’t going to go there either, and Mathis-Lilley was not impressed:
Politically, one might not want to call Trump a racist because it might alienate people who share some of his views but don’t consider themselves racists and could be otherwise convinced to vote Democratic. As a matter of accuracy, though, if someone who says Mexican immigrants in America are disproportionately likely to be rapists, and argues that Muslims should not be allowed into the United States, and repeats sleazy urban legends about the behavior of American Muslims and black people, is not a racist, then the word has no meaning.
Fine – the word has no meaning. Actually, it has no political meaning. It’s just a random insult, a schoolyard taunt. In politics, policy matters. One-word taunts are not policy alternatives. Mathis-Lilley should calm down, and, as Josh Marshall notes, this debate wasn’t worth getting excited about:
Each candidate’s supporters were confirmed in their support. And I did not have the sense that either stood out dramatically from the other in a way that would push late deciding primary voters in one direction or another. The only point I would add to this is that coming off his upset win last night in Michigan, Sanders seemed much more in this election than he did a few days ago. Thus he seemed much more like an equal sharing the stage with Hillary Clinton.
But Marshall has his gripes:
I thought the moderators did a pretty poor job moderating the debate. I don’t mean that their questions weren’t good. I mean how they ran it. They repeatedly interrupted each candidate in the middle of answers or on a schedule that may have been dictated by some agreed upon rule but which felt arbitrary in the context. Worse than that though, they couldn’t actually control the candidates. So you had a mix of constant interruptions – which often disrupted edifying exchanges – combined with an inability to enforce whatever rule they were trying to enforce. The point of a debate is to have the candidates actually debate, exchange their positions and keep them focused on the questions asked. The rules should further this goal. But they can also get in the way. On this simple point of managing the flow of the debate, I thought the three moderators lost the sight of the forest for the trees.
Equally trying was the fact that through much of the debate the candidates were struggling to find cutting attacks against each other on issues on which they overwhelmingly agree. Campaigns are about differences; so this isn’t terribly surprising. And it has some value, at least within reason. But through many of the exchanges it seemed like two people struggling to find something to argue about. …
One big takeaway for me was that there was relatively little between the two candidates which went to the real essence of this contest – an establishment politician with a long history of pushing for incremental change within the system and an outsider who talks about transforming the country in line with left-liberal values but would be deeply challenged to bring about that change in a country closely divided on partisan lines. That’s the real issue between these two candidates.
That kind of got lost in the back-and-forth, but that’s what separates these two, which Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir puts this way:
Literally no one expected Sanders to win the Michigan primary this week. You didn’t and I didn’t… Based on Sanders’ impromptu press conference in Miami late on Tuesday night, he didn’t either. No poll taken during this Michigan campaign had Hillary Clinton leading by fewer than five percentage points, and the most recent surveys suggested that she was cruising toward a decisive double-digit victory.
None of that has stopped the Clinton campaign and the Democratic political establishment from pretending that this was no huge surprise (which it was) and is no big deal (which it is). As usual, you can slice and dice the Michigan data to prove whatever point you want: Sanders did better among African-Americans than in any previous primary (although he only won about one-third of the black vote), and Clinton’s attempt to portray him as an enemy of organized labor and the auto-industry bailout may have backfired.
And that points to a larger issue:
I’m not doing Bernie Sanders campaign commercials here, and I have always seen him as a problematic and limited candidate. But whether or not Sanders wins, he has captured a mood and a moment that Clinton and the forces of Democratic orthodoxy have been unable to suppress. Nothing expresses that more clearly than Sanders’ extraordinary margin among independent voters, who may vote in either party’s primary in Michigan. He won that group by 71 percent to 29 percent, a much larger advantage than Clinton enjoyed among African-Americans or older voters.
I’m sure you can find people on the Internet right now who are using that statistic to downplay Sanders’ Michigan victory: Well, Hillary won among real Democrats, am I right? It’s true that Sanders is less likely to do well in closed-primary states, and that throughout the campaign he has polled relatively poorly among the most loyal Democratic voters and constituencies. That might frame a compelling argument about why Sanders can’t or won’t win the nomination, but as an argument that Clinton should win it – well, what adjective would you prefer? Weak? Feeble? Desperate and depressing? If Hillary Clinton’s path to the Democratic nomination effectively requires shrinking the electorate and driving away newcomers and outsiders, then that speaks volumes about her party’s dire predicament.
Something has changed here:
Both major parties are afflicted by a pervasive mood of denial and confusion, although it’s only beginning to surface among Democrats. It’s been obvious (and admittedly entertaining) for many months on the Republican side, as the party’s leaders and back-room financiers have discovered that their supposed electoral base hates their guts, doesn’t agree with them on the issues and has rejected all their preferred candidates. For the brain trust around GOP head Reince Priebus, it’s the metaphorical worst-case scenario, except not a metaphor: There is at least a 90 percent probability that the Republican nominee will either be an authoritarian billionaire who barely qualifies as a Republican and not at all as a “conservative,” or a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican who is more widely despised by his own party than anyone in recent political history.
The Democratic race lacks the same flavor of Kardashian-style grotesque and melodrama, which has definitely relegated it to No. 2 in the ratings. It’s notably short on “Sieg Heil” salutes, Ku Klux Klan controversies, discussions of penis size and gratuitous personal insults. Clinton and Sanders have gotten pretty testy of late, and that’s likely to get worse before it gets better. But they don’t appear to actively loathe each other, and there’s never been any question that whoever loses will ultimately endorse the winner.
That makes things on the other side far more interesting:
The differences between Clinton and Sanders as symbolic or ideological currents are more meaningful than their differences in policy or personality. Both candidates want to expand healthcare, raise the minimum wage and make college more affordable. But they stand for different and in many ways opposing visions of American society, the American economy and American politics. I still think it’s unlikely that Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic nomination, although it would be foolish to sound certain about that. But Sanders represents the possibility of a non-partisan or post-partisan politics that is clearly the future. (In fact, it may be the present.) Hillary Clinton stands for a political party, and a political system, that is dying.
Maybe they should have debated about that, but they didn’t – but maybe they did, really. That’s something to consider, but of course now it’s back to All Trump, All the Time.