On Thursday night, for the first time, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders squared off one-on-one on a debate stage and waged war over the soul of the Democratic Party.[embed:render:Photos: Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders battle in MSNBC debate:right]
Sanders’ idealism clashed with Clinton’s pragmatism, and both candidates staked out definitive positions on a host of issues that will either come back to haunt them or boost their candidacies should either of them become the Democratic nominee for president this summer.
The debate, which earned rave reviews for its substance, also presented an opportunity for both candidates to present a vision of what the White House under their leadership would actually look like. Here are a few crucial takeaways:
Sanders has a SCOTUS litmus test
The Vermont lawmaker has been very vocal about the need for campaign finance reform, and on Thursday he suggested it would be one of his top priorities should he be elected president. Should Sanders get the opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court justice – which the next president is expected to, potentially more than once – he said that his choice would have to declare “loud and clear” that they will vote to overturn Citizens United, the controversial 2010 Supreme Court ruling that unleashed unlimited for-profit corporate contributions into the political process.
Clinton will “look into” releasing speech transcripts
The former secretary of state has been getting hammered from the left for a series of paid speeches she made before Wall Street firms like Goldman Sachs. Although Clinton suggested it was an “artful smear” to link her political values to her campaign contributions, the speech issue has highlighted what is perceived as hypocrisy in her populist message in many progressive circles. When pressed by moderators about whether she would release transcripts, Clinton promised to “look into” it. It’s highly unlikely that Sanders, or a potential GOP rival for the presidency this fall, won’t revisit the content of her paid speeches in the future, which could prove to be another distraction for Clinton.
Sanders would be the first anti-death penalty nominee in nearly 30 years
While Sanders conceded that he understood and respected Clinton’s pro-death penalty position, particularly when it comes to acts of terrorism, he said “in a world of so much violence and killing, I just don’t believe that government itself should be part of the killing.” By taking a zero-caveats approach to the death penalty, should he become the nominee, Sanders will be the first Democratic presidential candidate to openly oppose capital punishment since Michael Dukakis in 1988. Dukakis infamously suffered the indignity of being asked if he would in theory execute the killer of his own wife during a general election debate. The lack of emotion in his response is often credited with fatally wounding his campaign that year.
Clinton’s first call as the nominee would be to Sanders
In a heated debate, it was one of the more magnanimous gestures. Clinton pledged that should she win the nomination, the first phone call she would make would be to Sanders “to talk to about where we go and how we get it done.” Sanders also said he would do the same, but the initial pledge from Clinton spoke volumes about how impactful the Vermont senator’s candidacy already has been. Clinton has acknowledged more than once the passion, particularly among young voters, that Sanders’ campaign has inspired. And if nothing else, he has forced Clinton to shore up her credentials on the left and to have debates on issues that are within his comfort zone.
Sanders won’t be another McGovern or Goldwater
When asked to address concerns that his insurgent campaign could meet the same fate as other ideologically pure candidacies that crashed and burned in the general election (namely Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George McGovern in 1972), Sanders doubled down on his commitment to a 50-state strategy. He cited polls that showed him performing better against potential GOP nominee Donald Trump in a head-to-head match-up and suggested that huge voter turnout would provide him with an edge. “If there is a large voter turnout, not only do we retain the White House, but I think we regain the Senate. We win governors’ chairs up and down the line,” Sanders said. “So I believe if you want to retain the White House, if you want to see Democrats do well across the board, I think our campaign is the one that creates the large voter turnout and helps us win.”
First priorities as president
Neither candidate chose to put forth a single first priority of their potential administrations. Nevertheless, Clinton did say she wanted “half a billion more solar panels deployed” and “enough clean energy to power every home in the next four years.” She also said she wants to increase health care coverage through Obamacare and to bring down the cost of prescription drugs. “I want to move forward on paid family leave, on early childhood education, I want us to do more for small businesses,” she said in what essentially amounted to a stump speech.
Sanders also resorted to familiar talking points, pledging to address the “broken” criminal justice system and to overhaul campaign finance laws. “So long as big money interests control the United States Congress, it is gonna be very hard to do what has to be done for working families,” Sanders said. How either candidate could get their agenda through a potentially Republican-controlled Congress will have to wait until the next debate.