The Clinton campaign limped into the PBS Democratic presidential debate, hoping to erase the recent memory of Hillary’s New Hampshire nightmare. With such minimal expectations, Clinton probably accomplished what she needed to in order to stall Sanders’s momentum — but just barely.
She wasn’t the outright winner, and Sanders fans likely came away thinking their candidate had the better night. Same goes for Hillary partisans. But Clinton turned in a strong enough debate performance that the stink of this past week’s primary debacle has started to fade away from the Clinton camp. Indeed, her more nervous supporters can rest assured after this: she will trudge on with her inevitable, but uninspiring campaign. If nothing else, this unmemorable evening let her demonstrate her endless capacity to muddle through.
Much of the Sanders-Clinton back and forth was a rehash of earlier debates. On policy substance, they agreed about as often as they disagreed. When asked questions ranging from immigration to Social Security, they took turns saying roughly the same thing — yes to amnesty, more spending, more government.
Both claimed — and have done so repeatedly throughout the debates — that they want to get money out of politics, as well as hold Wall Street accountable for ruining Main Street. But only one candidate sounded earnest while doing this — and it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.
This is a big problem for her campaign. Philosophically, Clinton supporters would no doubt like to frame the debate as her pragmatism vs his idealism, but the better comparison is her opportunism vs his authenticity. With her over-rehearsed, poll-tested economic populism, Hillary has a serious authenticity problem. On the debate stage, Sanders once again highlighted this as the soft underbelly of Clinton’s campaign, pointing out her cozy connections to big money, though he did so more gently than the last time they faced off.
Hillary has no good way around this. When Bernie Sanders presents his message vilifying Wall Street, it has potency with the progressive left because it comes across as honest. But Hillary Clinton was paid millions for her speeches to Wall Street and others, and now takes in huge donations from the financial sector for her campaign. Thus, even a true blue Democrat may have had a tough time seeing Hillary as anything other than cynical when she tried to borrow some lines from Bernie about millionaires and billionaires.
That said, there were some moments where Hillary clearly had the upper hand. When the discussion turned to foreign policy, Madame Secretary showed she does have more experience and more familiarity with the issues. Her line about Obama trusting her to be his secretary of state — despite her vote as a senator for the Iraq War — may have successfully defanged one of Sanders’s best attacks on her national security record. There was also a somewhat bizarre interlude where Bernie brought Henry Kissinger’s record into the fray, which just added to the sense that the senator from Vermont isn’t up to date on world affairs.
The last five minutes of the debate were among its most compelling — and contentious. Clinton made it clear that, for all intents and purposes, she is running for Obama’s third term, and will build on his progressive legacy. She then turned this into an attack on Sanders, whom she accused of insufficient political loyalty to the Obama administration. Sanders’ rebuttal — that in America it’s still OK to disagree with the President — was swift and biting.
Overall, this debate reinforced the conventional wisdom that has been undergirding the entire Democratic race thus far: despite her obvious flaws as a candidate, and the shellacking she took in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton is still the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party. The machinery of the party establishment is squarely behind her, as are major donors and much of the media.
But even if its defeat is foreordained, the Sanders campaign poses some risks to another Clinton eventually winning the White House. Attacks from Bernie Sanders — however tame and civil they may be — that expose Hillary as the quintessential politician-for-sale could do lasting damage in the general election. If voters see her as a phony now, that’s not going to change by November.
Nonetheless, perceptions of electability will propel Hillary, however unenthusiastic about it the left wing of the party may be. Bernie Sanders is what the Democratic base wishes it could elect in an attempt to change the country; Hillary is who they will elect in an attempt to win the presidency. Ignoring her disingenuousness and dishonesty is the price Democrats are willing to pay in order to keep one of their own as commander-in-chief.
This most recent debate served as a reminder of that unsavory truth.