Against the backdrop of the Flint water scandal, the two remaining Democratic rivals clashed Sunday night in one of their last debates. Rarely have the contrasts been so publicly stark. Between the two candidates, of course, as well as with their GOP rivals.
Where Florida Senator Marco Rubio last week blamed Democrats for “politicizing” the Flint crisis—a crisis in fact that was “politicized” at its inception, by cost-cutting GOP politicians guided by a cruel political calculus in which black lives plainly don’t matter as much as white ones—Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders proved they understand the role politics and racial indifference played in the Flint tragedy, and that they’ll make it their task to challenge both.
Still, this was the most contentious debate of the cycle. Senator Sanders came to play. He even got salty with CNN’s Anderson Cooper early on, when he asked him an odd question about why, since government caused Flint’s problems, its residents should thrill to his promise of bigger government. (Of course the problem wasn’t government, but the Republican desire for small, cheap government.) Sanders got sarcastic:
That’s a good point, Anderson. Listen, I suppose they can trust the corporations who have destroyed Flint by a disastrous trade policy which has allowed them to shut down plants in Flint and move to China or Mexico. We could trust them, I’m sure. Or maybe—you know, maybe, Anderson, tell you what—we should—maybe we should let Wall Street come in and run the city of Flint, because we know their honesty and integrity has done so much for the American people.
The crowd mostly loved Irascible Bernie, and that’s whom they saw most of the night.
Clinton immediately went into the weeds—in a laudable way—on everything from specific solutions to the immediate Flint crisis to removing rodents from decrepit urban schools. The contrast with Sanders was clear: He hit broad themes, showing how bad trade bills, Wall Street deregulation, and environmental degradation had caused the problems the nation faces. For Sanders, only a thoroughgoing change of priorities, driven by a participatory revolution, will remove the conditions that cause scandals like Flint.
In the meantime, though, what happens to the people who are suffering? That’s where Clinton was strong and Sanders seemed far less engaged.
Take the issue of the 2008 auto bailout, perhaps the thorniest of the debate, on the eve of Tuesday’s Michigan primary. The funds, which saved an estimated 1.5 million jobs, were tucked inside the odious Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP—better known as the bank bailout—which Sanders opposed. So he voted against the double bailout bill.