I couldn’t bring myself to watch last night’s Democratic debate, because Wolf Blitzer. I had little hope it would be anything but a disaster.Â I mostly followed it on the Guardian live blog, which at least was witty. Also the Brits tend to be a little more objective about our colonial politics. What I read there suggested that both candidates scored points but that Sanders came off a bit better.
Dylan Matthews at Vox called the debate a big win for Sanders.
The whole debate saw Clinton on defense and Sanders on offense. When she did attack, he deflected easily and went back to landing punches.
In terms of topics, the focus was consistently on economic justice, and when it wasn’t, Sanders successfully spun it in his favor. Better than that, he spun it such that his standard economic attack lines still applied. He didn’t just accuse Clinton of being weak on climate change: he accused her of being weak because she’s in hock to billionaires and corporations, a natural extension of his existing narrative.
On Clinton he wrote,
There was a particularly bleak moment in the closing statements, after Sanders concluded, as the audience chanted, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” for a good 15 seconds as Clinton stood quiet, lightly smirking, waiting to speak. Here she is, in a state that elected her to the Senate twice, and she’s very much not on her home turf. The crowd is definitely not with her. And she’s on defense.
Most disturbingly, she was on defense even on issues where she should be dominating. The wrap on Sanders is that he can’t cover issues outside of base economic matters. But he got the better of her on mass incarceration, on Israel, on climate change. Her previous strategy of pivoting to areas where Sanders is weaker doesn’t appear to work anymore.
During CNNâ€™s Democratic debate on Thursday night, while the candidates ricocheted between discussions of global warming as the primary threat to America and whether to raise the minimum wage to $12 or to $15, it was hard not to feel that Sanders had won a battle almost as large as the race to be the 2016 nominee.
â€œI want white people to recognize that there is systemic racism,â€ Clinton stated Thursday night in one of many statements that would cause a time-traveler from the 1990s to stare with open-mouthed astonishment. Indeed, the debate functioned as a fascinating window into Democratic politics in 2016. Even a mere eight years ago, Obama and Clinton often struggled to outflank each other on the right. (Think of the skirmishes over the individual mandate.) But on nearly every domestic issue, both candidates went left, strongly so, and from health care to college tuition to Social Security, Clinton played on Sandersâ€™ turf. Even her critiques of Sandersâ€™ spending focused not on the deficit but on Sandersâ€™ general sloppiness with numbers.
The irony of his campaign is that the septuagenarian Sanders is probably four or eight years ahead of his time, rather than behind it. In some ways Sanders was lucky in his opponent. He wound up getting paired against someone who happens to be on the wrong end of the prevailing trends in the partyâ€”hawkish; friendly to Wall Street; an almost perfect embodiment of that otherwise nebulous term, the establishment.
Jack Mirkinson at Salon wrote that Sanders was wobbly at first but got better as the debateÂ wore on:
Eventually, though, Sanders hit on a strategy that worked over and over again: He started acting like a hectoring journalist, repeatedly pointing out Clintonâ€™s garbled answers on issues ranging from the minimum wageâ€”where she got completely tied up in knots about whether or not she supported the Fight for $15 movementâ€”to Social Security to climate change.
The most extraordinary part of the night, however, came when the debate shifted to a discussion about Israel and Palestine. This is usually a dispute-free zone in American politics: everyone, on both sides of the aisle, fights about who can pledge fealty to Israel more fervently. Sanders, though, has suddenly morphed from a candidate who seemedÂ not to want to be caught dead talking about the issue to one who actually managed to win an exchange about it in a debate in New York Cityâ€”and to win it from Clintonâ€™s left. He asked Clinton, over and over again, why she hadnâ€™t mentioned Palestinians during a recent speech before AIPAC. He said that Palestinians should be treated with dignity and respect. He called Israelâ€™s invasion of Gaza in 2014 â€œdisproportionate.â€ Clinton gave perhaps her most passionately hawkish replies of the night in response to all of this.
Clinton maintains a substantial lead in New York, however, and whether this debate will change anything is questionable. Still, one can hope. New York’s primary is closed to all but registered Democrats, which favors Clinton. However, there’s no early voting here, which may favor Sanders.