Were you one of the seventeen people who decided to watch the Democrat debate at 9 p.m. on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend? No? Well no worries, we have you covered.
Unlike the past three “debates”, which more closely resembled a Bill Maher roundtable, this one actually felt like a real debate. Hillary Clinton, seeing her poll numbers plummeting and her lead eroding, came out swinging. And Bernie Sanders–whose default modes are “angry” and “yelling”–finally displayed a willingness to turn that righteous anger toward his opponent.
The enmity was evident from the first moments of the debate when Sanders called Clinton’s attacks on his gun record “very disingenuous.” Clinton hit back saying that his voting record shows “that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times.”
Sanders then, somewhat out of nowhere, found a place to discuss his momentum and Clinton’s fade.
“As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of three percentage points,” Sanders said. “Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close. Maybe we’re ahead in New Hampshire. In terms of polling, guess what? We’re running ahead of Secretary Clinton.”
Then came the fight that most pundits were spoiling for: The debate over Bernie Sanders single-payer health care “plan,” or lack thereof. The face-off began with Clinton gently questioning whether Sanders pie-in-the-sky rhetoric could ever translate into political reality.
“I certainly respect Senator Sanders’ intentions, but when you’re talking about health care, the details really matter,” Clinton argued. “And therefore, we have been raising questions about the nine bills that he introduced over 20 years, as to how they would work and what would be the impact on people’s health care.”
Those comments were a much softer than the numerous attacks she had made in the days leading up to the debate, a fact that Sanders didn’t allow to go unnoticed.
“[W]hat her campaign was saying — Bernie Sanders, who has fought for universal health care for my entire life, he wants to end Medicare, end Medicaid, end the children’s health insurance program. That is nonsense,” Sanders said.
Clinton, now setting aside any notions of diplomacy, then argued that Sanders wanted to “tear [Obamacare] up and start over again” which would “set us back.”
Although unintentional, the repartee set up one of the clear dividing lines of the debate, one that I’m not sure that Clinton is smart to draw: The notion of Clinton as the successor of President Obama’s legacy, and Sanders as a reckless ideologue who would erase Obama’s gains. The contrast was the clearest in the debate over Wall Street regulations following the economic collapse in 2009.
“[W]here we disagree is the comments that Senator Sanders has made that don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of a great recession,” Clinton said. “Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”
The politics of playing Sanders as the anti-Obama candidate were clear. As the New York Times reported, Clinton “intends to make it difficult for Mr. Sanders, a Vermont senator, to win over the black voters who were so crucial to Mr. Obama’s success in 2008 in South Carolina, where exit polls showed more than half the primary electorate was black.”
Is that gain really worth conceding that Sanders is the change candidate in a political climate clearly marked by an affinity for outsiders and a distrust of Washington? That seems risky. But maybe Clinton thinks she’s going to lose in Iowa and New Hampshire, so she feels compelled, even desperate, to win in South Carolina. My how the mighty have fallen.