February 5, 2016
Even Hillary Clinton’s strongest detractors acknowledge she doesn’t back down easily. The first 20-30 minutes were intense even by her standards. Perhaps it was just the way the cameras were angled, but I can’t remember one candidate staring down another like this.
Back in 2000, Al Gore got in trouble for sighing loudly as George W. Bush spoke. There were no audible noises here, but it looked like Hillary wanted to Bern a hole through Sanders’ skull. Not sure if this was her game face, or if her mask that claims she’s ok with an extended campaign dropped, to reveal Hillary’s true feelings about being locked in a battle with Larry David.
At first it seemed she was coming in too hard, like a plane that fails to decelerate enough before hitting the runway. I was mentally composing my recap, wondering if Hillary was the least likeable politician in human history or just the least in the modern era.
And then she broke him.
Bernie Sanders got off to a good start. The first segment allowed him plenty of room to talk about the economic issues that provide the foundation for his campaign. Whenever he’s up and running on the influence of billionaires and major corporations on campaign finance, all is good.
He can answer questions about why voters should take him seriously. He can answer questions about getting things done and getting along with Republicans. Having an opportunity to cite statistics about the percentage of wealth held by the top 1/10th of 1% always works.
There are two ways to extinguish the Bern. The first and most frequently talked about is foreign policy. It’s not his strength, not his comfort zone. A majority of Democrats and Bernie-leaning Independents are more interested in economic issues. That is making Sanders competitive in the race.
But there’s still the whole commander-in-chief thing. Whether a voter is worried about Bernie being the most powerful individual on earth, or just how Republicans would portray this, it’s a thing. Hillary picks up points any time the conversation moves in this direction.
Talking about the Iraq War vote only goes so far. He needs to draw a linkage between Hillary’s judgment in 2002 and her decisions as secretary of state. The problem is he’s not willing to strongly criticize President Obama’s foreign policy for fear of upsetting Democratic primary voters. There’s no way Bernie was or is ok with what Hillary did in Libya. He’s not on board with some of the decisions in Syria.
There is a real debate to have on these issues. Not going to happen, when the president is widely popular with a majority of the voters he needs. Bernie is already out ahead of him on economic issues. Not sure how he gets out of this trap, and it will snare him in each debate.
By itself, this doesn’t guarantee an advantage for Hillary. Most debates will only spend one segment of time on foreign policy/national security. She’s just as awkward when the conversation moves to accepting speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
Bernie Sanders doesn’t go negative. By his reckoning, he’s never run a negative ad. Contrast of policies, sure, but never personal attacks. This is a major point of pride for him and a foundational issue for the campaign.
He’s run many campaigns in Vermont and won more than he lost. I’m sure opponents have attempted to hang Karl Marx on him at every turn. Either Vermonters are ok with a political extremist (they aren’t–there are limits–even in Vermont), or he can push back effectively when caricatured.
You see how well he uses humor and strong belief to make himself non-threatening. No matter what you may have learned or heard about socialism, in the person of Bernie Sanders, it just doesn’t seem like something that could devour the economy, turn business sclerotic and bankrupt the country.
Hillary’s one point of leverage is to impugn Sanders’ honesty and honor by accusing him of going stealthily negative. The debate turned when she called him out and he bit through his lip before responding.
The “debate” about who is the more progressive is a controversy stirred up by the Clinton campaign, not Team Sanders. Her operatives are the ones who ensured this would become an issue. They are the ones who try to leverage his comments about the establishment.
If Hillary can align herself with Planned Parenthood and various liberal/progressive icons, which pushing Bernie to the margins, it gives her a tremendous edge with older voters and registered Democrats. Unless Bernie can turn every millennial in America out, he’s got an uphill battle.
This is politics. Presidential politics when Hillary knows it’s her last shot. Hillary Clinton will not go quietly into the night. Fairness and accuracy doesn’t matter. It’s up to Bernie to push back. If her campaign is doing anything historically wrong or nasty, it’s still a secret.
You could see Bernie wanted to explode. He didn’t. Instead he pivoted back to safe ground. She broke his serve. A good amount of the energy left the building, and the remaining 90+ minutes of the debate were completed mostly on her terms.
In the major alpha battle of the evening, Clinton won. In a race for president, that stuff matters. Especially when the person who is less comfortable on foreign policy turns away from verbal battle.
This shouldn’t prevent him from winning New Hampshire. He still has a double-digit lead in polling. If the final margin is closer, that’s probably more to do with Hillary’s residual strength in a state that salvaged her husband in 1992 and her in 2008. Bernie did ok overall. This wasn’t a choke performance.
They debate again before Nevada. Bernie needs to step up his game to win. Hillary Clinton is tougher than anyone he’s ever faced. Now she knows he’ll back down.