Bloodshed in Brooklyn: The New York Democratic Debate Takeaways
The candidates met up last Thursday in Brooklyn for their last debate before the New York primary. Both have New York roots; Clinton represented it in the Senate, while Bernie was one of the first settlers of what was then New Amsterdam.
It was harder-punching than the previous debates; from the beginning the candidates were announced, each candidate was cheered on by their fans like rival boxers. Chants of “Bern-ie! Bern-ie!” popped up periodically and were at least an octave lower than their peers, highlighting his lead in the crucial Bro demographic.
Both candidates opened in signature style.
Bernie began by saying that he was doing what was rare to do in politics — tell the truth — and then proceeded to say several things that were either not true or only partially so: that Citizens United needs to be repealed for progress, that billionaires are buying elections, etc.
Hillary Clinton opened by pandering to the local crowd and going through a checklist of references to 9/11, the first responders, and “New York values,” a reference to Cruz’s unpopular comments and potentially a killer name for a discount clothing store.
Over the course of the debate, they each had their moments, with Hillary getting traction on her attacks on Sanders for supporting guns, and Sanders finding traction on Hillary’s seeming adoption of his position on the minimum wage. Personally I don’t think it makes sense for gun makers to be sued for selling a product that works as advertised or that you should be eager to engage in a national-scale labor experiment because the number $15 sounds nice, but Democratic primary voters obviously disagree.
Sanders attracted attention for his remarks on Israel, which won him points with the crowd— though maybe not with New York, which has a huge Jewish population (if you hadn’t heard). Sanders was asked whether Israel’s incursion into Gaza was disproportionate, and replied by saying that while he was pro-Israel, he considered the response disproportionate and Netanyahu was not always right. While Sanders’s comments would have been considered moderate in most circles or perhaps “telling it like it is,” it’s a departure from the lockstep US support for Israel. He also called out Clinton for avoiding the question when she stuck to pro-Israel talking points (about how they were attacked and the Palestinian leadership had had walked away from past opportunities for peace). Even if you’re pro-Israel, there must be some line of proportionality in use of force, unless you want to say dropping an A-bomb on Gaza would be acceptable. To duck the question entirely is weak, and shows how distorted the dialogue has been in political circles.
Clinton also lost some ground on her response to the Libya crisis, first defending it and then making a clumsy attempt to pin Bernie as a supporter of the conflict (when he voted for a unanimous symbolic measure in favor of democracy), and passing off ultimate responsibility to Obama — when she knows well that the action would not have been taken without her. You can’t use refer to your resume again and again and then shy away from your record when inconvenient.
Clinton emphasized her connection to progressivism, talking about institutional racism, women’s rights and breaking down barriers much more than Sanders did. This hasn’t gotten her as much mileage with the progressive community as she might have expected at the beginning of the campaign, but it could help explain why she has so much traction with minorities. Sanders mentions them in his rallies, but if the order he gets to them is an indication, they are lower down his list of priorities — no matter what that fifty year old picture of him getting arrested at a civil rights rally says.
While Clinton had moments earlier in the debate, Sanders seized momentum later with clearer answers and strong attacks to her connections to Wall Street. Once he had the upper hand he basically tried to turn it into a rally, playing to the crowd with trademark calls of “huuuuge” and “average donations of how much?” for them to shout $27. I was sort of hoping he’d accidentally say “who’s gonna build the wall?” and the crowd would shout “Mexico!” but that was too much to ask.
It’s frustrating to see Clinton repeatedly use very political language, especially this late in the campaign. While she’s had good debates, and is winning the primary, she still can’t seem to hammer simple arguments that could take down Sanders.
She got loud cheers saying “it’s easy to diagnose the problem, but much harder to solve it” and “if someone says they’re giving you something free, read the fine print.” She would have gotten a lot more if she’d said simply “It’s all talk” or “You may have been saying this for 25 years, but I’ve actually been doing something about it.” This is her most powerful angle of attack — because it’s true. Sanders’s plans are often unrealistic and overly simplistic solutions. She should be hammering that angle like it’s a glowing red dot on a Nintendo boss, or at least as often as Sanders mentions her Goldman Sachs speeches.
I am not sure whether she is reluctant to go for blood or tell things like they are for fear of alienating his voters or what. When Sanders attacks her for not supporting the $15 national minimum wage, she pretends like she does, which is frustrating because nobody really believes it. She listens to economists and most of them call it a risk that could result in huuuuuge unemployment (I wish she’d used that last line specifically). Minimum wage could be a vulnerability for Sanders. It’s amusing how he scolds Clinton for ignoring frequent unintended consequences of regime change, while ignoring the frequent unintended consequences that come from making major economic interventions based on populist whims.
Yet instead of taking him on, she says she’s being incremental and that “if a $15 minimum wage comes across my desk, I’ll sign it” — I suspect knowing that won’t happen, and she could prevent it from happening behind the scenes if need be.
I usually assume, charitably, that she feels her hands are tied from being beholden to different constituencies and positions she’ll need in a general election. However, the other possibilities are that she genuinely believes her ill-advised rhetoric or more likely, she’s just not that great a politician.
On Tuesday, we’ll see if she’s good enough of one to win the New York primary.
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