Those hoping for some fireworks in last night’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire weren’t disappointed. In their first one-on-one debate of the cycle, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were fierce advocates of two competing approaches to politics and policy.
But to perceive their aggressive confrontations as some kind of election-year food fight would be a mistake. As MSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald reported overnight:
Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC offered the clearest, rawest, and most specific examination of two fundamentally different philosophies about the character and future of the Democratic Party voters have seen yet. […]Clinton represents one view, calling for continuity and pragmatism, while Sanders represents the polar opposite, with his outspoken calls for “revolution.”
Sanders specifically called for a “political revolution” three times last night, while Clinton made clear from the outset, “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep.” Pressed by Rachel Maddow why, in light of some of the more moderate parts of Clinton’s record, liberal Democrats should support her, Clinton responded, “Because I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, ‘progressive,’ is ‘progress.’”
It’s “theory of change” debate at its core: one candidate intends to fight for progress through incremental gains; the other candidate believes a president can uproot the existing political system and replace it, institutional limits be damned.
As good debates often do, last night’s discussion helped expose the weaknesses and the strengths of both candidates. Clinton, for example, continues to face criticism over Wall Street, which she hoped to rebut by emphasizing her ambitious policy agenda that would further restrict the financial industry.
Sanders, meanwhile, continues to face pressure over foreign policy in general. Chuck Todd noted at one point, “You know, Senator Sanders, nobody knows who your foreign policy advisers are. You haven’t given a major foreign policy speech. And it doesn’t sound like … foreign policy is a priority.” The senator stresses some key positions – Sanders continues to emphasize his 2002 opposition to the war in Iraq – but it’s an area of his platform clearly lacking in depth.
So, who won? As is nearly always the case, it’s a subjective question and I don’t think there’s any real consensus about one candidate dominating the other. That said, Political Wire’s Taegan Goddard, who described the debate as “truly great” and “easily the best of the campaign so far,” made a comment that stood out for me.
“The real winners were Democratic voters,” Goddard wrote overnight. “Anyone who watched learned a lot. It made the Republican debates look like over-produced game shows.”
I think that’s both true and important. I don’t doubt that Clinton’s and Sanders’ backers can make spirited cases why their candidate prevailed, but I hope they won’t miss the forest for the trees: for two hours, Americans saw two very capable candidates engage in a deeply substantive, engrossing discussion that mattered.
In the aftermath of the Republican debates, it’s hard not to ask, “What’s wrong with these people?” Last night, however, I found myself thinking, “These two are good.”
Towards the very end of the debate, Sanders said, “You know, sometimes in these campaigns, things get a little bit out of hand. I happen to respect [Secretary Clinton] very much, I hope it’s mutual. And on our worst days, I think it is fair to say we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.”
“That’s true,” Clinton added a moment later. “That’s true.”