2016 Democrats, Debates

Debate Prep: Hillary vs. Bernie

October 12, 2015

The moment is almost at hand.  In one corner, the once presumptive nominee and still favored by and endorsed by most.  In the other, the short, semi-disheveled senior citizen from Vermont by way of Brooklyn who entered the contest as an afterthought to most.

For the first time, they meet head-to-head in front of a large (we’ll see how the ratings compare to a Trumpfest, but they’ll still be solid) national audience.  What should we expect from a showdown nobody would have expected nine months ago?

Bernie Sanders will do well.  I’m virtually certain of this.  I’ve heard him on Sunday shows for months now and he never misses a beat.  You might ask what that format has to do with a debate.  Quite a lot.

These are not actually debates.  Not with several people on stage at once.  They are group interviews where you need to give fairly short answers and your opponents can interrupt once in a while.

The big rule for insurgent outsiders is to be yourself.  Though many objected when Donald Trump took on Megyn Kelly in the first debate, he was in character, so it worked out.  A more passive Donald in round two didn’t work out as well.

It’s unfathomable that Bernie breaks character.  Though his team made a big deal about his absence of formal debate prep, Sanders did spend some time hitting the books to catch up on facts and figures.  Having spent the last couple decades on various congressional committees, he should have an easy time getting up to speed.

So he’ll combine the non-traditional delivery of Trump or Ben Carson, with a command of data closer to Carly Fiorina.  Should be a winning combination.  Many people admire how Carson sticks to his convictions and patiently tries to explain why his thinking is correct.  Bernie does this too and it’s very effective.

He knows they’ll ask him about gun control, with that being the only issue where anyone is to his left.  I heard Sanders answer the question Sunday on Meet the Press.  Won’t be a problem.  Many Democrats have at least one important thing in common with many Republicans.  They’re looking for candidates with conviction, not ideological purity.

Besides, it’s not like someone looking for the perfectly progressive candidate will throw Bernie over the side for Hillary.  If Elizabeth Warren were available….

The argument against Sanders usually contains the following logic:

Barack Obama barely defeated Hillary Clinton.  Barack Obama was a spectacular candidate with a ton of resources, who gave an incredible keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention.  Barack Obama gave Democrats a chance to support the first black president.  Bernie Sanders is none of these things.

All of the above is true, and there’s no guarantee Sanders will come close to winning the nomination, but he is likely to do better debating Hillary.  We forget this now, but candidate Obama did not do that well in the first few debates.

The field was bigger, and other candidates like Joe Biden and John Edwards had past experience running for president.  At this stage, Obama had lower poll numbers and fewer individual donors than Bernie.

He was still finding his voice in this format, still learning how to control his message when not giving a speech.  Bernie is far more versed.  He’s also able to unabashedly run as a left-wing candidate.  Obama was trying to sound relatively moderate while still inspiring liberals.

That’s a hard task.  The successful completion of it made Obama a great candidate and won him the presidency, but it came with a learning curve he was still struggling with in October 2007.

Bernie can say whatever he wants.  This gives him tremendous liberty, freedom of speech Hillary lacks.  Sanders also will not fall into a trap that ensnared Obama in early 2008, when replying to a debate question he said Hillary was “likeable enough.”

When a male candidate, particularly a younger one, is condescending or aggressive with her (in the 2000 Senate race in New York, Rick Lazio got too close to her podium in a debate), Hillary flourishes.  She does better as an underdog and those who care about electing a female president rally to her.

I can see Martin O’Malley getting ensnared, but not Bernie, who will always say he has great respect and regard for Mrs. Clinton, but is more consistent and reliable on progressive issues.

For as much press and free media as he’s received over the past few months, many voters haven’t actually heard that much from Bernie yet.  They may want a non-Hillary option and may not support Biden.  This is his chance to do well and appear plausible as a real contender.

This is especially important with minority voters who are almost a majority of the Democratic coalition and are not yet feeling the Bern.  Expect Sanders to take concrete steps to address this during the debate.

Where does this leave Hillary? What should we see from her?  We know she has prepared.  Nobody has ever accused Hillary Clinton of mailing it in.  She’s practiced her lines, reviewed many a briefing book.  It’s hard to imagine many questions that could catch her unprepared.

Six weeks ago, I wouldn’t have liked her chances.  Her pitch and tone were off.  She was rusty from avoiding interviews at all costs for months.  But recently, the pace of interviews picked up.  If there’s an NBC platform or property, Hillary has appeared on it.

From the Tonight Show to Today, from Meet the Press to Saturday Night Live, she’s there.  Though seven and a half years have passed since her last debate, Hillary will be in mid-season form.

When Kevin McCarthy stuck his foot down his esophagus when talking about the Benghazi hearings, it gave her just the dose of persecution complex the campaign was missing.  Sorrowful indignance will appear as needed.

That’s a lucky break, because Hillary will need assistance.  It’s a safe bet that moderators and/or O’Malley will bring up the emails and flip flops.  If the folks at CNN are really feeling frisky, they may resurrect Carkt Fiorina’s challenge to name an important accomplishment.

Whether or not that happens, she still faces the trouble of needing to run away from her record as Secretary of State.  One of her big achievements was to lay the groundwork for the Trans-Pacific (Trade) Partnership.  She bragged about this in her most recent book.

Unfortunately, she’s now against this.  She did the reset with Vladimir Putin.  Probably not a good time to mention.  Will she highlight her work on Syria? Doubtful.  There’s the Iran treaty, which was negotiated by her successor and was more of a priority for her boss, but Hillary probably had something to do with.

But even that is not universally approved of by Democrats, particularly the Jewish donors and voters she’s counting on.  Does Hillary mention her efforts in Libya?  Probably not.

It is striking that someone who served in the present administration, one that is still popular with most Democrats has so little to go on.  There are few areas that don’t lead to potential trouble.

None of this is lost on the candidate or her team.  We will hear that she’s a fighter, that Republicans smear her because they fear her.  We will hear she has fought for average, regular, every day, middle class Americans of all ethnicities, genders and sexual preferences for decades.

Will still be a challenging night for the polling and endorsement front runner.  One candidate participated in Dr. King’s March on Washington–Bernie Sanders.  He was also earlier on gay marriage (as was Joe Biden, who will infect the debate even as he watches it from afar).  He’s against Wall Street, she’s financed by it.

Sanders will spend almost the whole debate on offense, Hillary will spend lots of time on defense.  If she can make this anything approaching a tie, that’s a big win.  The playing field is heavily tilted against her.

I guess there’s a reason Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn’t want Hillary to endure this more than six times.

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