Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Fifth Democratic Debate: Something Rodham in New Hampshire...Maybe She's Not Born To Run

Steve takes a look at Bernie's big night in New Hampshire.

The day after an underdog Harvard football team stormed back to tie heavily-favored Yale in 1968, the Harvard Crimson jovially declared, “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.”

To hear Hillary Clinton crowing gleefully about her “victory” in what was actually a dead heat finish in the Iowa caucuses had the exact opposite effect; in no universe is it considered a win if the supposed leader finishes in a tie. More troubling, it seemed to signal that Hillary was out of touch with the surging new reality in the democratic contest.  In truth, she squandered a huge lead in the polls and limped out of Iowa with a tie. There was no amount of lipstick that you could put on this particular pig, and her attempt to lip-gloss it over creates renewed worry about Hillary’s fingerspritzengefΓΌhl; her “finger- tip feel” for the mood of the electorate and her ability to respond accordingly. 

Today, most pundits will dismiss the New Hampshire debate as a “tie,” as well. It was a spirited contest, with strong debate points scored on both sides. There was more intense sparring than in prior democratic debates; even a bit of unmistakable mud flung from each podium.

But with Bernie up by twenty percentage points in New Hampshire, “ties” are no longer good enough for Hillary. While Secretary Clinton was often forceful and had good moments, it was Bernie Sanders who is driving the agenda and defining the issues in these debates.  With each successive encounter, it is increasingly Bernie who is setting the tone and forcing Hillary on the defensive. 

As we see a pattern develop that bears an eerie resemblance to 2008, we begin to ponder the fundamental conundrum:  Hillary Clinton could truly become a magnificent President, but only if she immediately stops being a truly mediocre candidate.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders is proving to be a remarkably effective candidate, with a much more intuitive grasp of how to run a successful campaign.

Let’s start with the most basic truth: Bernie has a message and stays relentlessly on message. Hillary does not.

Fifteen seconds into the debate, Bernie launched into his now familiar rant that the root of our every problem is a rigged financial system in which all money flows to the top one percent, and a corrupt campaign finance system that enables the one percent to perpetuate their stranglehold on politicians and policy. This has become Bernie’s functional equivalent of Springsteen playing Born to Run. His fans know it is coming, and yet they can never get enough of it. It constantly validates their belief system.

Bernie Sanders is an immensely disciplined candidate, and he realizes that every night is a new audience, and the most important people in that audience are actually the people who are hearing his message for the very first time. So he does not wander or experiment. He bangs home the same simple idea, over and over and over. He credibly traces our every societal problem back to this core narrative. He offers a concrete, urgent reason why he should be president.

Finally, Bernie – like Bruce – has mastered the extraordinary performance art of never becoming tired of his own signature expression.  You will never, ever see a bored Bruce Springsteen mail in Born to Run. Ever.

And every single time Bernie performs his own big hit, which I will call Takin’ Down the One Percent, he is focused, intense, and passionate; a man on a crusade. You can practically hear Clarence Clemons on the sax.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton has yet to frame her candidacy in a comparable, powerful, unchanging, inspiring clarion call. Indeed, she seems to constantly drift; often, most disturbingly, in direct reaction to the Bern du jour she is feeling. This week, Hillary is “the progressive who gets things done,” which is simply a lame and defensive response to Bernie’s recent observation that Hillary cannot claim – as she has done -- to be both a moderate and a progressive.  Hillary, get over it! Who cares what the cranky old codger from Montpelier launches your way? Since when does the leader constantly change her message with each new incoming from her challenger?   

Another rather ingenious dimension of Bernie’s shtick  is that he states his beliefs with such righteous indignation, such outrage, and such an emphatic sense of personal violation that he conveys that anyone who does not share his wrath must disagree with him, and/or be inextricably ensnared in the problem. Like, for example, his opponent on stage. At seventy decibels, the implication is hard to miss: “she took money from Goldman,” he is effectively saying, “ergo, she has sold her soul, her beliefs, and her vote to the devil.”

In an explosion of exasperation last night, Hillary finally went back at him. “If you’ve got something to say,” she said, “say it directly!” It was a good moment for her. She pushed back very hard, challenging Sanders to find a single example of her vote being influenced by speaking fees. She kept pushing, attempting to shame Sanders for practicing a deception, but when she actually accused him of a “smear” (however “artful”) the Bernie-babies in the audience hissed their diss.  The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

But even in this relatively good moment for Hillary, she had been placed in the position of having to defend herself.  It was Coke allowing Pepsi to frame the debate. The weird echo of “I am not a crook” revealed the degree to which Bernie’s narrative had messed with her mind and infiltrated her camp.  

There were several other charged moments, notably when Bernie characterized Hillary as the “establishment” candidate, which Hillary sought to dismiss, but merely on the basis of her gender. Bernie missed no opportunity to bring up Hillary’s vote to support the Iraq war as a way to neutralize her overwhelming resume in foreign policy. Again and again, Hillary found herself on the defensive; at one point gasping in exasperation that years of foreign policy chops were being offset by “one vote.”  It’s tough to win when your defense is on the field the whole game.

Aside from these more energized exchanges, much of the debate was a policy wonk-fest between two world-class wonks. A number of debate segments had all the snap, crackle, and pop of a House committee session on C-SPAN 3. But even here: the more these two candidates debate the nuances of the NAFTA agreement, the more it helps Bernie. Every minute that the stage appears to be a level playing field is a win for the Bern.

Perhaps the biggest headline from the evening is not what was said, but what was not said.

On defense for most of the night; frustrated to see her front-and-center career roughed up by someone who had never spent much time even on the stage, Hillary has neither her own powerful raison d’etre, nor her compelling critiques to Bernie’s candidacy.

Hillary has not figured out how to fight back; she has not come up with an effective set of sound bites to return the burn.

Which brings us to our all new “free advice” segment of

Here you go, Hillary. Here are the three “Bern the Bern” talking points that you must begin using now.

1.     “If you vote for Bernie, you are handing Donald Trump the one tool he needs to win the presidency: the word “socialist.”

Bernie Sanders proudly describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” but the Donald will be sure to leave out the “democratic” part in his twitter feed.  Out in the square states, the only words that could be worse as a descriptor of a presidential candidate than “socialist” are “child molester.” Hillary, go out and tell people that if they give Donald Trump the opportunity to run against a self-professed socialist, Trump will repeat that vilification fourteen times an hour. And that could give him the election.

2.     Hillary must stamp Sanders as a modern day McGovern.

Bless her heart, it took Rachel Maddow to raise the issue that Hillary should have trotted out long ago.  The last time the Democratic party handed the steering wheel to someone extreme as Bernie Sanders, George McGovern drove the party into a ditch where it lay in ruin until Bill Clinton took the democrats back to the center.  A Sanders nomination will have the immensely ironic effect of making Trump look more mainstream.

3.     Stop running against Bernie Sanders, and start running against Trump/Cruz/Rubio.

Hillary, ever well-behaved, Wellesley-schooled, and accustomed to using lined paper, dutifully follows instructions as the moderators drag her into pointless policy prattle about the differences that separate her from Bernie Sanders.  She should take a lesson from the Republicans, who have learned to answer the question that they would like to answer rather than the inconvenient one that was asked.

Her best opportunity to outshine Sanders is to assume the posture and stature of the Presidency.  She should rise above the internecine skirmish and insist on focusing on the real enemy: the three tea-bag dose of Trump, Rubio, and Cruz.  At least two or three times every debate, she should take the opportunity to challenge the premise of the question. “You know, Chuck, Bernie wants to bring back Glass Steagall, and I want to do that and then some.  We can debate how to cut back the power of the big banks, but the real issue is that the Republicans don’t want regulations, they don’t want to cut back the power of the big banks, and that will lead to another global financial meltdown.”

The bottom line here is simple. Hillary missed yet another opportunity to change the “big mo’” in New Hampshire.  Call it a draw… but let us remind Hillary that a tie is nothing to get excited about.  As a student who entered  Yale Law right shortly after that famous game, she should know.

Hillary has to become a better, sharper, more disciplined candidate; she must set the tone rather than accept being on the defensive.

Or perhaps the Dems may decide that she was simply not born to run.

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