Monday, January 18, 2016

The Fourth Democratic Debate: The Weekend was Bernie's

Steve's back and he gives the nod to Bernie for debate number four, the last one before Iowa.

Among the great “Yogi-isms” was his contention that “I never said half the things I said.” No, Yogi himself never actually said the following, but last night, I imagined the MVP of malapropisms musing that “the problem with things that are inevitable is that a lot of times they don’t happen.”

Over the past six months, many Republicans have traveled a fascinating journey from “Donald Trump is an embarrassing joke and he will never be the nominee,” to “Donald Trump may be a self-aggrandizing ass, but he has an uncanny ability to articulate what is frustrating people,” to “I would much prefer to have Donald Trump as the candidate than that oily Princeton weasel from Texas.”

I submit that after Sunday night’s debate, the Democratic party finds itself reluctantly moving down the same path, reconsidering the Yogi Berra perspective on inevitability, much as the Republicans have long since done.

In the past, Hillary Clinton has used the debates to stop Bernie’s momentum in its tracks. Usually, she radiates command and confidence, and invokes her considerable breadth of global and national experience as a safe buffer from her rivals.

Last night, Bernie Sanders slammed into the Hillary Express, and for the first time, he won.

Let’s start this analysis with a quick update on the NFL Playoff games, which were instructive. Some of you saw the Carolina Panthers take a 31-0 lead over Seattle in the second quarter; seeming to end the game by halftime. But Seattle’s charismatic Russell Wilson stormed back in the second half, with only an ill-fated offside kick preventing him from tying the game. This happened because Carolina became convinced of its inevitability, and played “prevent defense” for the entire second half. It was cautious and “safe,” as if they were trying to avoid losing instead of playing to win.

Hillary Clinton has become the Carolina Panthers of the primaries.

For months, she’s has been content to believe the comforting clippings, the “national” polls; to listen to her close group of advisors who specialize in telling her what she wants to hear, and to “play out the clock” until the actual primaries seal the doom of Bernie and the Insurgents. She has been trying to avoid losing, rather than playing to win.

Bernie, however, finally pulled out his howitzer in Sunday’s debate. For the entirety of his campaign, Bernie has been relentless in saying that no substantive change can happen in America until the “rigged financial system” is fixed and until campaign finance laws are rewritten so that the super-rich cannot buy candidates and issues. Finally – finally Sunday night – he succeeded in stamping Hillary Clinton as irrevocably enmeshed in the pollution of money and politics. He said that she has received $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in the past year, and then Bernie said it again. And then Bernie said it again.
It’s not just that Hillary won’t fight this problem, Sanders was saying. She is the problem.

Strangely, Hillary Clinton did not defend herself against this accusation. She did not have a round-house punch prepared to address the direct attack.

I have spent my career in marketing, and I am fond of saying that if you want to be the leader in your category – be it soft drinks, overnight delivery, credit cards; whatever – you have to find out what your customer wants most, and then deliver it best. Find out what is most important to your customer, and then own that idea. “Coke refreshes you best.” “Absolutely, positively.” “It’s everywhere you want to be.”

Bernie Sanders has sharpened his candidacy to a simple premise: that the most important issue of our time is to address is that the country is run by the moneyed elite rather than by democracy. And he is the only person who can take it on, because he is not soiled by big-money donations and mutual interdependency.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton has not yet articulated the essential reason for her candidacy as clearly, as succinctly, and as exclusively as Bernie Sanders. Her reason for running seems to be that she simply deserves it.

As if to make this point more emphatically than I ever could, Hillary Clinton spent the entirety of Sunday night saying that her vision is nothing more than a continuation of somebody else’s vision – Barack Obama. Time after time, Hillary Clinton sought to position herself as the “incrementalist” who will stay the Obama course.

Here most stinging attacks were on the two points where she could find “daylight” between herself and Sanders: guns and healthcare, in which she scolded Sanders for not playing on Team Obama. She was actually very effective in her impassioned appeal that Sanders’ attempt to move to a single payer system would essentially re-open the entire debate on Obamacare, which she pleaded risks undoing one of the great democratic achievements of a generation. And she was scathing in ticking off instances in which Sanders had caved to the gun lobby, implying that Bernie’s pious purity was for sale to placate his gun-toting Vermont constituents.

But I would submit that – in marketing terms – Hillary spent her evening talking about the difference between her and Bernie on two secondary issues: healthcare and guns. She allowed Bernie Sanders to define and then own the most important issue: the influence of money in politics.

As a final point, Hillary did not spend nearly enough time positioning her candidacy in the vital area where she does have a huge advantage over Sanders: global security and the Middle East. Once again, she felt it was enough to say that she represented continuity with Obama… referencing the Iran nuke deal and emphatically declaring that there would be no American troops on the ground in Syria.

In this area, she punted on two marvelous gifts: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked her to talk about whether Obama had erred in drawing his famous line in the Syrian sand, and about her relationship with Vladimir Putin. In the latter, Clinton was given a golden opportunity to talk about this and other personal relationships she has forged with global leaders, but oddly, she seemed to go coy and cute, calling the relationship “interesting,” and then acting like it was actually a state secret. In discussing Obama’s failed “red line,” Clinton missed the chance to make the real point: it’s not that we should have gone to war over the poison gas, it is that we should not have publicly declared a red line that we were not willing to hold to. I can hardly wait to see what Donald Trump’s twitter feed does with these quotes.

And, yes, Governor O’Malley was on the stage the entire time, and I am sorry to not bother with any commentary on his performance, but he is now the guest who has stayed too long. Even Narcissist-in-Chief John Edwards knew to bail out around now. Perhaps he’d get the hint if Comedy Central invited him and Ben Carson to host a late-night comedy show.

I have read that pundits have already dismissed this debate as a draw, but I disagree. For some time now, there has been a subtle undercurrent of momentum moving in the direction of Bernie Sanders. It is – as I and others have pointed out – simply the democratic flavor of anger with “politics as usual” that is driving the Trump/Cruz fervor on the right.

I see the national polls that give Hillary a 25% lead. But “national poll,” my friends, is what statisticians view as a synonym for “people who are not yet focused on the election.”

In Iowa and New Hampshire, the citizens are doing their job. They are paying attention, and in those two states, this is a very close race.

The risk to Hillary is not that Bernie Sanders is going to wrest the nomination away from her if he takes New Hampshire. The risk is that he will achieve the Yogi-ism; he will thoroughly shred her aura of inevitability. This will cause people with names like Biden and Bloomberg to sit up and take notice.

On Sunday night, Hillary Clinton did nothing to shut down that small but steady momentum of voters toward Bernie. Two weeks before Iowa and New Hampshire happens to be a particularly terrible time to play your “prevent defense.”

It’s exactly what Yogi, uh, didn’t say:  “the problem with things that are inevitable is sometimes they don’t happen.”

1 comment:

  1. Steve, while I can never argue with the fluidity of your prose, for the first time, I find myself unpersuaded by your point of view. In this past debate, Bernie was hoisted on his own petard, demonstrating time and again that while he has a mantra that sounds soothing -- income equality -- he lacks a plan to lead us there, promising agonizing years of wheel spinning and spitting mud. Would many of us like universal healthcare? Of course. Including, I dare say, Hillary. But she crisply demonstrated that we dismantle Obamacare, flawed as it is, at our own peril, and who among us didn't shudder at the image of going at this with Congress yet again? Then there was the subject of no tax increases for the middle class. Bernie made it clear that he giveth with one hand and taketh away with the other. AND, his plan to fund his tuition initiatives depends upon the savings reaped from universal healthcare. Not gonna happen.

    Don't get me wrong. Bernie's idealism got us all thinking and that's been an important contribution to this early election season. But Hillary conveyed, in stark relief, why we need to have a strong dose of practicality to get anything accomplished. And I believed her when she said that she'd go anywhere to talk to anyone about anything. I think the debate was a slam dunk for her.


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