The first direct face-off between Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders was a thriller, featuring substantive differences, raised voices (although only one candidate got criticized for that; guess who?) as well as humor, comity, and large areas of agreement. It also revealed that the two remaining Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination are still inadequately facing up to two important sets of questions for any would-be president.
Clinton continues to miss the extent of voter anger about the way the political rules have been rigged to protect the powerful interests of Wall Street. I frame that politically, but maybe I’m too generous. It’s possible she misses the extent that the rules actually have been rigged. Along with her tone-deaf answer Wednesday night about why she accepted $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs—“It’s what they offered”—she must rethink her insistence that Sanders focuses too much on Wall Street, because it’s “just one street.” She is smart enough to know that “Wall Street” is hardly “just one street”; it has become a stand-in for the problems with the privileging of the finance sector in our economy. Mocking Sanders’s approach as focusing on “one street” is a political mistake, and may be a substantive one, too.
Clinton is right to tout her Wall Street plan, which Senator Elizabeth Warren praised and which Paul Krugman says is tougher than Sanders’s. But she will struggle with the Democratic electorate, especially young people, if she continues to equivocate on the measure of blame the financialization of our economy—which does transcend Wall Street, as she rightly says—deserves in rigging our dangerously unequal economy. She can do better than this, I believe.
And Sanders can, and must, do better on foreign policy. He is lucky that segment of the debate was preceded by the fireworks over their Wall Street differences, and succeeded by discussions of political process and issues on which they mostly agree. Those were the segments that got the most attention Friday morning. But Sanders’s apparent lack of deep interest, along with deep knowledge, on issues of foreign policy is borderline disqualifying in a person running for president.
Asked to critique President Obama’s stepping up our military response to ISIS, and Clinton’s defense of it, Sanders lamely segued back to his 2002 vote against authorizing military force in Iraq, which Clinton indeed got wrong (she has said so). But as this campaign goes on, it’s clear that “I voted against the Iraq War 14 years ago” is his default on foreign-policy questions, and it’s not going to work. Yes, it shows better judgment than Clinton on one issue, and that matters. But asked about the future, he can’t keep defaulting to the past. His entire tone and demeanor, as well as the content of his answers, got shaky when he talked about Afghanistan, Iraq, and North Korea. He still hasn’t made a big foreign-policy speech, as Rachel Maddow noted, though he crankily corrected her to say he discussed foreign policy in his Georgetown University speech that was billed as his big talk about socialism. If Maddow missed it, assume the rest of us did too.
Overall, though, it was a terrific debate. The candidates recovered from some early conflict to remind the audience that they agree on much, and deeply respect one another. When Chuck Todd implied Clinton doesn’t see Sanders as “presidential,” she protested, “I’ve never said that!” And they both dodged questions about whether they’d consider the other as vice president by saying that would be presumptuous as they still fight it out for the nomination. (I hope campaign adviser Jeff Weaver, who condescendingly announced Team Sanders would “consider” Clinton as VP, heard his boss.)
Again, this debate underscored how alarmingly detached from reality the folks on the GOP side continue to be. Democrats have two great candidates—but they both need to work on fundamental areas of their pitch to voters, and their approach to the challenges of the presidency.