Thursday, March 10, 2016

Democratic Debate Number 8: Univision Pins the Tales on the Donkeys!

Steve's back with his terrific take on Debate #8,, hosted by Univision...

There’s been an interesting byproduct of the extraordinary number of debates this election cycle: More news organizations have been given an opportunity to showcase their capabilities – for better or worse – to a far broader audience than they might normally garner. Most notably, cable network CNBC terribly bungled their turn hosting a Republican debate. On the other side of the coin, Fox News – which most liberals must admit they know largely through Jon Stewart’s video clips – has actually done a terrific job in the debates they have hosted.

In Wednesday night’s debate, it was Univision’s turn, and they hosted the toughest, edgiest Democratic debate yet -- with some of the best “oppo” research we’ve seen yet, turning up some of the most cringe-worthy, hard-to-justify video clips and policy positions uncovered thus far.

More important, Univision set out to pin the personal “tales” on these two donkeys; requiring them to make emphatic, unequivocal, unqualified statements on substance, policy, and belief. When Bernie or Hillary is squaring off against Trumpty Dumpty in October, he or she will secretly murmur “gracias” to Univision for tightening their flabby answers to the tough questions.

Hillary might have gotten a sense for Univision’s mood when the very first question of the evening was phrased, “where did you fail in Michigan?” There’s intentionally putting you on your heels – I get that – but that particular phrasing feels a little more like knocking you on your ass with a bulldozer. Particularly, as Hillary was quick to point out, about a day of primaries in which she won more votes and more delegates than her opponent. Bernie joined in by characterizing Michigan as “one of the major modern upsets in American history,” which he might have wanted to consider more carefully; expressing shock that you won a primary would seem to be acknowledging just what a long shot you know your candidacy to be.

The second question – after Jorge Ramos gracefully disclosed that his daughter is a volunteer for Clinton’s campaign – was to (1) challenge Hillary Clinton to defend the 104 classified emails that were sent from her private server, (2) publicly disclose who had given her permission to use a private server, and (3) announce there and then whether she would commit to dropping out of the race if she was indicted. (Oh, yes, you’ve got sixty seconds, Hillary… go!).  Momentarily nonplussed, Hillary nonetheless patiently explained that, oh, approximately 104 of those 104 emails had been categorized as “classified” after the fact, meaning that they were not classified at the time she sent them. Colin Powell, Clinton noted, had been outraged by the same treatment, labeling it an absurdity.  When Ramos pressed her to answer his question about dropping out if indicted, Hillary suspended her chil-lax mode: “I’m not even going to answer that.”

This is how the evening would unfold: Case after case, Univision asked candidates to defend instances of seeming vulnerability and hedging; sometimes directly related to the Hispanic community, other times not.

Bernie Sanders squirmed when a scratchy black-and-white video from the early 1980s showed him praising a number of policies of Fidel Castro, which is not how to put your best pata forward on South Beach. I am pretty sure you couldn’t find that by searching Youtube for “embarrassing clips of Bernie Sanders admiring communist dictators.” Somebody at Univision did their homework.

The moderators cited a quote from Hillary Clinton in 2003 that they characterized as revealing Hillary to be “adamantly against illegal immigrants,” followed by a question asking if her current positions represent “flip-flops,” or – even better – “His-pandering.” Ouch.

Bernie Sanders has long contended that his vote against the 2007 immigration bill was based on his concern that its guest worker privileges provisions constituted slavery. Up came a video of vintage showing Bernie contending that he opposed the bill because it would take away jobs from Americans. Ooops.

Univision’s “gotchas” had the added effect of triggering far more emotional exchanges between Clinton and Sanders than previously seen. Perhaps Bernie’s bleak outlook had been rejuvenated by Michigan, but he mixed it up with Clinton with a feistiness that we have not seen in some time. Their varying view of the 2007 immigration bill was one such hotspot, as Clinton noted how much further the country would have moved toward immigration reform had the bill passed, while  Bernie angrily defended his stance by noting that the bill had been opposed by LULAC (that would be the “League of United Latin American Citizens.” thank you, Google). Give these two credit for their command of detail; the way they wonk away at each other reminds me of two Trekkies trash talking about “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

Immigration gave Ramos another “pin the tale on the donkey” moment with Hillary, when he demanded that she take this opportunity to publicly pledge that she would suspend all deportation of children as well as adults with no criminal records. Hillary sighed as she attempted to parse the nuances of requests for asylum, and tried to take the position that until laws are changed, existing law will be enforced. In the end, she seemed to throw up her hands and say something that she hoped would sound enough like a pledge that the network could break for another awful Cadillac commercial and end the misery. “No mas!”

The best confrontation of the night was on the subject of the auto industry bail-out, which – for a Hispanic-themed debate in Florida -- is a bit like choosing the Turks and Caicos for a summit on snow removal policy. As if to tell all those Michigan folks how wrong they’d been, Hillary described how then President Elect Obama had let it be known to his senate colleagues that he needed them to support the bail-out bill that would indeed rescue the automobile industry. Bernie countered that he opposed the bill because it also rescued the corrupt titans of Wall Street. This launched Bernie off on his “release the text of your speech at Goldman Sachs” tirade, which he took to new comedic heights. “They paid $225,000 for that speech! It must have been an extraordinarily wonderful speech!” Certainly the American people would want to see the text of such an extraordinary speech, Bernie concluded; all to great guffaws in the hall. To Hillary’s credit, even she was laughing.

But let’s face it, the best Democratic confrontations feel like a reality show pilot that was developed for C-SPAN 3. Even at their most exasperated, most wronged, most indignant, Hillary and Bernie keep to a higher road than the Republican Wrestling Federation’s weekly card. In the end, it was a debate of strong exchanges that were close to call on points. If these two had been doing this at Forest Hills, every match would have gone to tie-breaker.

If forced to call this one, I’d declare Bernie the winner -- but not because he did such a great job. The reason is that Univision was out to make its reputation with this debate -- and Hillary Clinton was the bigger game target. So they went after her more, and harder, and some punches landed.

There are two moments that illustrate my point.

The first was when the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty turned to Hillary and noted that “only 37% of Americans consider you honest and trustworthy.” Anticipating Hillary’s “go to” response, Tumulty pushed on, noting that Clinton usually explains this as being the result of a lifetime of relentless attacks from Republicans. Putting that to the side, Tumulty continued, “is there anything in your own actions that would foster mistrust?”
You could practically see Hillary take a deep breath. The pace of her response was slow. She did not challenge the stats; indeed, she noted that as a public figure, she must take responsibility for that perception. She expressed her pain and frustration that this was the public view of her, and she even seem to acknowledge her puzzlement, in that she believed that had spent her career trying to help people. In the end, though, she seemed to imply that the trust gap might be a function of an off-putting personality and personal style. “I am not a natural politician – in case you hadn’t noticed – like my husband, or like President Obama.” It was a startling, revealing, and somewhat melancholy moment.

Exhibit #2: Jorge Ramos, the Walter Cronkite of Hispanic media, challenged Hillary Clinton on her handling of Benghazi. After seven investigative panels and eleven hours of direct questioning on Capitol Hill, the phrase  “you’re beating a dead horse,” has been replaced in the popular vernacular by  “you’re Benghazi-ing this.” The Hispanic crowd thundered its disapproval, as most liberals only expect Benghazi to be raised from the dead at Ted Cruz tea parties. But Univision carried on, and Ramos played a clip of a woman who had lost her son in Benghazi accusing everyone in the administration of lying to her about the nature of the attack, including Obama, Biden, Clinton – even old chief of staff Leon Panetta was made into a piƱata on this one.

Hillary was poised and measured; she immediately expressed her deep sorrow and empathy for the family. While she felt terribly for the woman’s loss, on the matter of the grieving mother’s accusation, Hillary did not equivocate:  “She is wrong… she is absolutely wrong.” Hillary proceeded along the high-road, describing the many conflicting and competing reports that had come in hourly and acknowledging that a “fog of war” clouded in-the-moment assessments. But she circled back to the point that in each and every terrorist attack from Reagan to Clinton to Bush, Americans had rallied together; only in the case of Benghazi has the issue been politicized.

The entire exchange seemed a painful flogging of an issue many wished had been buried. Hillary handled it well, but at a cost. Every time she is put on the defensive – about Benghazi, Goldman Sachs speeches, emails, whatever – she pays the bill but also pays the price. She does what she has to do, no matter how tired she is of doing it, and at what political cost.

So Bernie may have won on points, but only because the judges here don’t weigh the grades like Olympic diving judges, factoring in the degree of difficulty.

But you know what?  Thank you, Univision. Benghazi hasn’t come up much (on the Democratic side, anyway!), and it’s a darn good idea to put Hillary Clinton through her paces on a question that is guaranteed to come up in October.

And that was Univision’s game plan, and yes, there was clearly method in their vida loca: they intended to put the candidates in the most uncomfortable positions they could, and – unlike so many of the lazy moderators in other debates – they would never quit until the candidate had answered their original question.

This was a good debate. We learned a bit more about Bernie. We learned a bit more about Hillary.

And we learned a great deal about Univision, and what we learned was pretty cool.

Because it was Univision that finally pinned a few personal tales on these two donkeys.

1 comment:

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