The Democratic Debate

by John Lawrence

The Cubs should certainly sign up their #1 booster, Hillary Clinton, because in her first at bat during last night’s debate, she blew one out of the park. Every other Democrat on the stage needed to do something to slow her inexorable drive to the Democratic nomination, and none of them came close.

Since there are analyses to spare all over the press, media and internet, just a few observations are in order from DOMEocracy today.

The debate certainly had its highlights. I suspect this was the very first time the words “massage therapist” were uttered in a presidential debate (by Sanders); the way the Republican debates have been going, I sincerely hope it is the last.

More importantly, however, Clinton demonstrated a command of knowledge and ease of delivery that clearly set her apart from her competitors. She was able to deliver her attack lines – on Sanders’ less-than-persuasive explanation for his votes against gun legislation – without any hint of the strident tone that could annoy undecided voters.

Sanders … not so much. He was lecturing more than debating, displaying an aggressiveness that undermined the accuracy of many of his arguments. Americans must like their candidates in order to support them, not simply for superficial reasons, but because likeability is related to trusting their judgment when dealing with complex issues. Regardless of how one feels about Sanders’ analysis of the U.S. economy or his plans for remaking the economic order, his argumentative tone undercuts his message fatally for all but the true believers One can be both resolute and likeable (think Ronald Reagan) but not resolute and angry.

At times, Sanders sounded like he was more engaged in a late night dorm discussion than a presidential debate. Citing Denmark and Sweden as examples of where his approach to public policy works? It did not take Clinton long to challenge Bernie’s naiveté. (And Bernie may want to check into current challenges facing the Scandinavians, for example, on deficits, entitlements and immigration before putting them up on too high a pedestal.)

Indeed, Clinton has expertly checked the Vermont senator on most of his signature issues, and has moved the debate from disagreement on policy to who possesses the skill to achieving those mutual goals. Still, give Sanders the credit he deserves for pressuring Clinton to not take progressives for granted: on trade and the Keystone pipeline, Clinton has pivoted left to dilute Sanders’ appeal and in doing so, reduced the hesitation some of his supporters might feel about transferring loyalty after the convention. He also has elevated a level of discourse about the malevolent aspects of the American economy and tax system that deserve action from the next Administration and Congress.

Sanders fell into the trap laid by Anderson Cooper concerning his ideological leanings. As a general rule, it is a pretty safe bet that in American politics that if you have to explain just what kind of democratic socialist you are, you are not having a good night outside certain campuses, a few swell homes in the Bay Area and the upper West Side, and, well, Denmark. Clinton cleverly deflected the question about the her attitudes towards capitalism into an homage to small business.

Sanders weakness on his economic record, rather than his economic rhetoric, was highlighted when he described his opposition to TARP, the 2008 law that prevented the collapse of the world economy. No one really needs reminding that the taxpayers bailed out the very perpetrators of the misbehavior that triggered the crisis. But Sanders failed to explain what he would have done at that moment, in that crisis, to prevent a cataclysmic worsening of the catastrophe-in-the-making. Both he and Clinton seemed oblivious to a crucial fact that should never be forgotten about TARP: it was only because of Democratic leadership in Congress that the Wall Street firms had to repay the public dollars that they received – with interest. At last count, I believe, taxpayers actually made about $12 billion in profit off TARP, making it one of the better investments into which the government has dumped money. Democrats should talk about standing up for the taxpayer when this subject arises again.

Clinton’s impressive performance probably represents the end of the non-existent Biden campaign. The chances of his launching a challenge that would necessitate an aggressive attack on the former Secretary of State was always negligible; even if he won, he would lose in the process. A far more plausible (though still highly unlikely) scenario would entail his lingering in the shadows in the event she stumbles and falls, providing Democrats with an alternative to Sanders or one of the other candidates. Clinton’s adroit debate in Las Vegas significantly diminishes the possibility any understudy will get to take the stage, unless something calamitous occurs in the e-mail or Benghazi inquiries.

The other candidates on the stage merit little discussion because they are unlikely to either influence the direction of the campaign or to be elevated into the role of serious contenders. Of the three, O’Malley performed well, not only demonstrating knowledge of issues and a record of achievement, but also the kind of likeability and absence of guile that more politicians would benefit from emulating. His problem, however, is there is really only room on the stage for Clinton +1, and he isn’t the one because Sanders is willing to speak more boldly and play to the base in a way in which O’Malley is not.

As Yogi Berra has said, “it ain’t over till it’s over,” and it ain’t over by a long shot. But after last night’s debate, it is a little closer to the end.

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