Showdown: What Will We Learn From the First Clinton-Sanders Debate?

Showdown: What Will We Learn From the First Clinton-Sanders Debate?

Showdown: What Will We Learn From the First Clinton-Sanders Debate?

A liberal will square off against a socialist atop the most progressive Democratic field in most of our lifetimes.

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Heading into the first Democratic debate, progressives have the rare pleasure of knowing that the two leading candidates are moving closer, not farther apart—and in this case, moving closer involves both of them moving toward progressive positions: Hillary Clinton on trade, the environment and financial regulation; Bernie Sanders on questions of gun regulation and how to achieve racial justice.

As we prepare to watch a liberal square off against a democratic socialist in Las Vegas, leading the most progressive Democratic field in many of our lifetimes, what might the debate tell us about the campaign to come?

One big question is how much each candidate will try to hype his or her differences, or similarities, with rivals. In recent weeks Hillary Clinton has come out against the Keystone XL pipeline (which the State Department had been accused of favoring) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade, which as secretary of state she praised as the “gold standard” of trade agreements. (Since the TPP has, by most accounts, actually gotten more progressive than it was when Clinton was in on negotiations—on issues of labor rights, tobacco regulation, and drug pricing—let’s hope a moderator asks how her it went from gold to dreck in that process.)

Her new financial-industry regulation policies are likewise better than many skeptics expected from the former senator from Wall Street. Though Clinton was better than many remember on banking reform in 2008, calling for a foreclosure moratorium and closing the carried-interest loophole for hedge-fund managers, her policies announced last week would do much more. Clinton came out for a tax on high-frequency trading, increasing maximum penalties on wrongdoers, and closing the Volcker rule. She would also require that firms fess up to wrongdoing if the government helps them get out of trouble, and her rhetoric took a distinctly populist turn.

“When people commit crimes on Wall Street, they will be prosecuted and imprisoned,” she said.

It didn’t satisfy everyone—in The Atlantic, James Kwak called it “technocratic incrementalism”—but most advocates were pleasantly surprised by how far Clinton went.

Meanwhile, Sanders is shoring up some of his own weaknesses with the Democratic base on the issues of race and gun control. Sanders got off to a rough start in his first couple of confrontations with activists associated with Black Lives Matter. Facing hecklers in July, Sanders responded: “Black lives, of course, matter. But I’ve spent 50 years of my life fighting for civil rights. If you don’t want me to be here, that’s okay.” Many activists didn’t enjoy the spectacle of an older white man resting on civil-rights laurels from long before they were born.

But Sanders has improved his rhetoric and his outreach since those early clashes. He hired Symone Sanders, a young African-American activist on issues of mass incarceration and racial justice, away from Public Citizen to be his communications director. And where he once sounded as though he believed the achievement of genuine economic justice would lead automatically to racial justice, he now routinely talks about dismantling the incarceration state and other measures specifically designed to reverse black disadvantage.

On guns, Sanders has riled activists with a handful of votes against gun regulation. He voted against the 1993 Brady Bill, to allow weapons in national parks and checked baggage on Amtrak, and to offer gun manufacturers immunity against suits by gun victims. In condolence remarks after the mass shootings in Charleston, South Carolina last summer, Sanders didn’t mention the issue of guns.

But on Friday in Tucson, after the gun assaults on campuses in Oregon, Arizona, and Texas, Sanders played up the need for gun control. He reiterated his support for a ban on the sale of assault weapons, closing the so-called gun-show loophole, and otherwise tightening up the background-check system. “We are tired and we are embarrassed in picking up the paper or turning on the TV and seeing children in elementary schools slaughtered and young people on college campuses shot,” he told the crowd.

I’m not sure the debate can answer progressive voters’ two biggest questions about Clinton and Sanders. For Clinton, the issue is whether she can be trusted to stick to her new progressive stands. On one level, that’s a little ungracious of us. To change the country, we’re going to need a lot of center-left Democrats like Clinton to come over to our way of thinking, on trade, taxes, climate change, and an overall rejection of austerity politics. We shouldn’t be sore winners.

But Clinton skeptics are rightly concerned about follow-through if the Democratic front-runner gets the nomination. So far, the Clinton team has been closely focused on winning the primary, not wanting to make the same mistake they made in 2008 when they focused on the general election and emphasized Clinton’s moderate centrism, and mostly looked past her primary challengers and the party base. Still, there are some Clinton backers who worry her stand on the TPP and other issues will cost her with independents and moderates next November. Will Clinton be talking to those voters Tuesday night, or keep true to a message that’s designed to win over the base?

The big question for Sanders is whether he can put together an electoral coalition to get the nomination, and win next November. On that score, the debate can’t help but help him. Sanders still polls dismally among African-Americans; in a recent YouGov poll he got 8 percent of their votes; in a South Carolina poll released Monday (that’s the first primary state in which the black vote will be significant), he was at 4 percent. But a lot of that has to do with his being much less known to black voters than Clinton or Vice President Joe Biden. The first debate gives him a chance to bring his appeal to a mass audience.

But like Clinton, Sanders faces risks if he looks past his primary challenge to winning the general election. The Vermont socialist has long believed that his ticket to electoral success lies with winning back the white working-class voters the Democrats have increasingly lost, starting long before they nominated the first black president. That’s partly what explains his preference for class over racial appeals.

“I look at these things more from a class perspective,” he told The New York Times in July. “I’m not a liberal. Never have been. I’m a progressive who mostly focuses on the working and middle class.” He touted his success in attracting white working-class voters in Vermont who tend to disagree with Democrats on issues like gay marriage and gun control, but resonate with his economic populism. But Vermont is 95 percent white; outside its borders, Sanders may find that appealing to white working -class voters without alienating the party’s increasingly black and Latino base is a zero-sum game. I’ll be interested to see how he crafts his case on Tuesday night.

Of course, much of the debate is in the hands of its CNN moderators. To this point, the media have shown a great appetite for getting Clinton, Sanders, and their next closest rival, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, to beat one another up on the campaign trail. Mostly they’ve refused. Expect questions that are designed to get them to take shots at one another, which could change the dynamics of the race.

Finally, the specter of a Joe Biden candidacy will hang over the show in Las Vegas. Increasingly, Biden’s reluctance is taking a toll—on the vice president himself. Sympathetic observers like The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent have begun to call on the popular vice president to “stop jerking us around.” The heart-breaking illness and death of his son Beau slowed Biden’s decision making, understandably. But the notion that he could jump in without participating in this crucial first debate seems a little unfair—to his rivals, and to the party. With every day he waits, Biden runs the risk of seeming more like a spoiler than a statesman.

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