Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Seventh Democratic Debate: Super Bowled Over

Years ago, games in the National Hockey League were so frequently interrupted by brawls, bloody noses, and fisticuffs that a popular joke became “I went to the fights last night, and a hockey game broke out.”

With the memory of the two recent Republican debates still fresh, I felt an eerie echo of the hockey joke as I watched the Democratic debate Sunday night. Neither candidate drew inferences about the other’s sexual organs.  Neither attempted to paste the other with a demeaning nickname.  Neither shouted to try to drown out the the other’s responses. Neither called the other a liar. What was going on? I had tuned in for my fix of reality television, with wildly unscripted accusations, slurs, and venom, and what do you know? A debate broke out.

The Democratic debate on Sunday night was, very simply, the diametric opposite of Thursday’s Republican screaming fest.

Before we assume that the radically different tone of the Democratic debates is solely due to high-minded character or an inherently respectful nature in the two candidates, let’s do our own reality check. 

First, let’s start with two Super facts: Super Tuesday plus Super delegates have suddenly given Hillary Clinton a profound lead in the Democratic race. The thesis that my brother has patiently laid out for weeks comes down to a simple truth: You can change opinions but you can’t change math. Because the Democrats allocate their delegates proportionately in each state – rather than as in the old days of “winner take all” gold mines in California, Illinois, and New York – Bernie Sanders must win huoooooge landslides to overcome Hillary’s 200 delegate lead in the elected delegate count. Throw in the party’s “Super Delegates” – the party officials and elected office holders who are “delegates at large,” and Hillary’s lead is actually projected in the range of 1,130 to 499. Sure, the Super delegates can change their minds if Hillary falters. But that is the huooooooooge if.

So both candidates arrived on the stage in Flint last night informed by this reality, and their stage manner reflected this truth.

Hillary Clinton knows one thing: Her job in the coming months is to gently win over the Bernie Babies who flock to Sander’s events and who have been galvanized by the very extremism of his ideas.  Given this reality, Clinton’s performance last night was masterful. She took opportunities to be emotionally charged and highly motivational when addressing the failures of government (most pointedly, the situation in Flint itself) and to the positions of the Republicans, but she was restrained, even-tempered, and quick to invoke fact and data when counter-punching with Sanders. She did not shrink from going toe-to-toe with Bernie when he challenged her, but there was not a single moment in this debate when she evidenced frustration or anger. Hillary held serve, and did so without pounding Bernie with aces. She gave his adoring fans no fodder for anger.

But Bernie Sanders, too, is a canny, wise, and principled man. Deep down, he certainly knows that his campaign is at a crossroads, and that he cannot keep saying the same things and hope to radically change the momentum.  He is at the stage where I suspect that many of his advisors are urging him to go nuclear: to dive directly into the muck of Hillary’s email controversy, and to attempt to mortally damage her on two fronts: trust and electibility.

But Bernie Sanders probably knows that the nuclear option would simply be a neutron bomb that would damage him as badly – or worse – than her. His own early rapid ascent in the polls can be traced in some measure to his famous declaration that “I don’t care about your damn emails,” and to go back on that assertion would call into question the very principle and integrity that are at the core of his candidacy.

Moreover, to become the person who tries to take down Hillary Clinton – who is rapidly becoming viewed as the only thing standing between the United States of American and a “President Trump” – well, that would be your dictionary definition of a pyrrhic victory.  Bernie, just ask Ralph Nader: His lasting legacy is not having written “Unsafe at Any Speed,” nor is it a lifetime of consumer advocacy. Ralph Nader will forever be known as the self-involved egomaniac who insisted on running for President on the Green Party in 2000, siphoning precious votes away from Al Gore and handing the election to George Dubya Bush, which led to Iraq, which led to ISIS. Thanks, Ralph. “He Gave us Dubya” will look great on your tombstone.

So Bernie Sanders is, indeed, between Iraq and a hard place.  He knows that if he just keeps saying the same thing, the status quo will likely hold, and time will run out. He knows that if tries to exploit the most obvious vulnerability of Hillary, he appears to be a hypocrite.

In the Flint debate, Bernie opted for Door Number One.

It took the occasionally quirky question from the audience to introduce anything new into the substance of this debate; most notably at the very close when a local resident pressed each candidate to talk about their faith. Bernie’s emotional affirmation of the central role of faith in his life was riveting. Hillary responded to a question about the personal experiences in her life that might have helped her better understand and empathize with people with different upbringing and cultural experience that her own. She spoke movingly about her work as a young lawyer on the Children’s Defense Fund.

What I found most interesting in the course of the evening was the willingness of each candidate to dive fully into the frustrating world of nuance and compromise in the legislative process. Each was pointedly asked about legislation that they had supported that was now considered bad law. In Hillary’s case, it was the 1994 crime bill (obviously, of course, during her husband’s administration), which is now viewed as the major cause of the huge increase in incarceration which has been visited disproportionately on the African American population. Hillary carefully parsed the good in the bill (notably the Violence Against Women Act) while overtly and easily conceding the excess of parts of the legislation.  Don Lemon of CNN asked her why African Americans can trust her, and challenged her to say it was a mistake. Without a beat or a doubt, she rejoined, “Yes, I just said that.” Hillary seems to be making progress on the power of simple, powerful, unrehearsed, and unhedged assertions.

Bernie, in turn, worked doggedly to defend his position on voting against legislation that would make gun manufacturers potentially liable for lawsuits emerging from mass shootings. His reasoning was simple: Gun manufacturers cannot be held liable for such deaths if they have followed the absolute letter of the law as it currently exists in terms of manufacture and distribution. Give the man credit: he didn’t have to spend two minutes educating an unsympathetic liberal audience on a nuanced position.

In the end, this debate was very much a wonk-a-thon between two world-class wonks, and while each can be pleased with their individual performance, absolutely nothing changed in the broader narrative as a result.

But, for the fun of it, let’s go back to our core question:  what is really behind the radically different tone of the Democratic debates from the Republican debates? Is it all to be explained by Donald Trump’s bluster, crudeness, and bloviating?

Don’t underestimate these factors:
  1. With only two people on the stage, the Democrats can actually have a debate. They have the time to give more thoughtful, detailed answers. They both know they will get plenty of time on camera.  Half the problem in the Republican debates is that the candidates are fighting for time on the microphone, and they speed through answers so that they can respond to a prior insult. The fewer people are on the stage, the more orderly a debate will appear. (And yes, that will help make Donald Trump appear less crazy on the stage in October).
  2. There is a far higher level of policy overlap between Clinton and Sanders than exists in the Republican field. The Republican candidates have hugely different policy beliefs… on military intervention, immigration, healthcare, tax reform, name it. The Republicans are attempting to hash out complex disagreements on policy in one minute soundbytes, and the effect is chaotic.
  3. Moreover, after six essentially one-on-one debates, Clinton and Sanders know exactly what each other is going to say, and they have thoroughly rehearsed response lines at the ready. There is less emotion when you know what’s coming.
  4. There is unmistakable personal respect between Clinton and Sanders. Republican candidates Trump, Cruz, and Rubio have developed a deeply personal animosity for each other, a fact they simply cannot mask. In their last debate, they were all asked to renew their pledge to support the winning candidate. Each did so with all the enthusiasm of someone who has just swallowed a jalapeno.
  5. As argued above, Clinton and Sanders each recognize that they have a vested interest in the other emerging whole. The Republican situation is simply the exact opposite: there is an overt intentionality on the part of the establishment elders to drop a neutron bomb on all four of the primary candidates in order to destroy Donald Trump’s candidacy. The Republicans are actively seeking an endgame in which none of Trump, Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich arrive at the convention with a majority of delegates, so that back room deals can enable the party to nominate a Paul Ryan or a Mitt Romney. At this point, the more anger, venom, destructiveness, and voter alienation from the existing candidates that occurs, the better are the chances that the Republican establishment can get the brokered convention they so desperately want.
  6. And yes, there is the Donald Trump factor – but I’d submit that it’s not the one you think. It is not that he is a run-at-the-mouth, shoot-from-the-hip, spur-of-the-moment wild card run amok. No, quite the opposite. Donald Trump is using the debates as just one more flavor of free media, and he believes that a critical criterion for the success of a debate is whether it got good ratings. Trump believes that the debates must be entertaining to draw audiences, and that audiences are drawn to big, outrageous statements and intense confrontation. His people tune in precisely for the raw entertainment value of watching him call Rubio “little Marco,” to call Ted Cruz a liar and a “basket case,” to call Jeb Bush “low energy.” Friends, this is what worked on The Apprentice. It’s fun to be the guy who gets to end the show by saying, “you’re fired.” Donald Trump will argue that a carnival free-for-all that draws fifteen million viewers is inherently superior to a thoughtful, studious, structured discussion among policy wonks that draws three million.
And you know what? There were probably about one hundred times as many people forwarding the “Little Marco” clip on Facebook than Hillary Clinton’s defense of the Import-Export bank. Just a hunch.

So go ahead, lefty, if you want to; believe that the esoteric dialog in the Dem debate is because your team is higher minded people, loftier intellects; the better angels of our nature.

And if you want to believe that the Republicans are just a bunch of spoiled children who are having out-of-control temper tantrums, go for it.

I think it might just be that Bernie has been “Super Bowled Over,” and that there is 100% method in Donald Trump’s madness.

This is shaping up to be not simply an election about left vs. right, or progressive vs. conservative; it will also be a referendum on whether we are a culture dominated by entertainment or substance.

1 comment:

  1. Another great analysis. A couple of minor suggestions though. Could you include a by-line for Steve, assuming he, not Tom, wrote this? Right now it just says "Posted by Tom Gardner," but if the author is Steve, his name should be at the top. Second, could you please, please, post the archive of blogs for this presidential campaign near the very top, instead of at the very bottom? It'd help those of us who don't always quite keep up with the posts, but would like to review them a day or two later and we have two or three to look back at. Thanks!


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