Milwaukee—Presidential debates are national discussions, and this is especially true when a debate is held almost two months before the state where it is taking place will cast primary votes. Yet, in Milwaukee on Thursday night, Hillary Clinton displayed a steady awareness of where she was debating, using local references to make national points.
Debating in Wisconsin, which does not hold its primary until April 5, Clinton regularly referenced individuals, issues, and challenges facing the state in general and the city of Milwaukee in particular. Democrats can agree or disagree with Clinton on particular issues. And Democrats can certainly be impressed with the powerful statements made by Bernie Sanders on the need to end the massive redistribution of wealth upward in America, with his ripping of Wall Street’s influence on our politics and with his robust defense of single-payer healthcare.
But Clinton displayed a sense of place that was not just an example of smart politics. It was a reminder of what Americans should expect in a presidential contender and a president. The front-runner who now finds herself in a serious contest with Sanders—the winner of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary—did not merely name-drop the state she was passing through for the latest Democratic debate. Clinton’s references to Wisconsin issues and personalities came at proper points in the discussion. She used insights and details from Wisconsin to inform discussions about issues of concern not just to Wisconsinites but to Democrats who live far from the state.
Early in the debate, Sanders explained that he would pay for bold new initiatives by “[doing] away with the outrageous loopholes that allow profitable multinational corporations to stash billions of dollars in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda and in a given year pay zero, zero in federal income tax.” He closed by declaring that, “I do believe that now after the American people bailed Wall Street out, yes, they should pay a Wall Street speculation tax so that we can make public colleges and universities tuition-free. We bailed them out. Now it is their time to help the middle class.”
The senator from Vermont made a fine point.
And Clinton knew it. She responded—as she did at many points during the debate—by talking about how much she agreed with Sanders. “You know, I think, again, both of us share the goal of trying to make college affordable for all young Americans. And I have set forth a compact that would do just that for debt-free tuition,” she began.
But, then, Clinton hit Sanders with the details.
“We differ, however, on a couple of key points. One of them being that if you don’t have some agreement within the system from states and from families and from students, it’s hard to get to where we need to go,” she said. “And Senator Sanders’s plan really rests on making sure that governors like [Wisconsin’s] Scott Walker contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free. I am a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that.”
It was not the only time that Clinton used an awareness of Wisconsin issues and events in response to statements made by her rival.
When both candidates ably addressed a question about mass incarceration and the necessity of criminal-justice reform, Sanders spoke of the need for “radical reform of a broken criminal-justice system.”
“I would hope that we could all agree that we are sick and tired of seeing videos on television of unarmed people, often African Americans, shot by police officers,” said the senator. “What we have got to do is make it clear that any police officer who breaks the law will, in fact, be held accountable.”
Clinton began her response by saying, “I completely agree with Senator Sanders.”
But then she added: “The statistics from Wisconsin are particularly troubling, because it is the highest rate of incarceration for African-Americans in our nation, twice the national average. And we know of the tragic, terrible event that lead to the death of Dontre Hamilton right here in Milwaukee, a young man unarmed, who should still be with us. His family certainly believes that. And so do I. So we have work to do. There have been some good recommendations about what needs to happen. President Obama’s policing commission came out with some. I have fully endorsed those. But we have to restore policing that will actually protect the communities that police officers are sworn to protect.”
The case of Dontre Hamilton—a mentally-ill African-American man who was fatally shot by a white Milwaukee police officer in a downtown Milwaukee park in 2014—has been a huge issue in Milwaukee. It has sparked protests and serious questioning about Milwaukee police and prosecutors.
“She said his name in a national debate,” noted state Representative Mandela Barnes, a Milwaukee Democrat who is neutral in the presidential race. “That means a lot to people in Milwaukee. But I think it also means something to people across the country who have been following these issues.”
Clinton did not stop there. She spoke about sentencing and explained “that’s one of the problems here in Wisconsin because so much of what happened in the criminal justice system doesn’t happen at the federal level, it happens at the state and local level.”
The former secretary of state was right about that. And she was right to use her closing statement to rip into Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s assault on public-employee unions. “Here in Wisconsin, I want to reiterate: We’ve got to stand up for unions and working people…who are being attacked by ideologues, by demagogues.”
Describing “all the barriers that stand in the way of Americans’ fulfilling their potential,” she decried “Scott Walker and others trying to rip out the heart of the middle class by making it impossible to organize and stand up for better wages and working conditions.”
“I think both candidates did well tonight, but I was struck by how frequently Hillary Clinton mentioned Wisconsin and Milwaukee,” said Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a Barack Obama backer in 2008 who is a Clinton backer this year. “She knew enough about Wisconsin to use references from here to explain where she stood on national issues. Whether you back her or not, that’s impressive.”