Bernie Sanders spun dreams of revolution in Sunday night’s Democratic debate, while Hillary Clinton preached of pragmatism.
That was the gist of their cases to Democratic voters in the last debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders talked of universal healthcare and education and ending war and promised to play Robin Hood, taking from Wall Street and giving that money to everyday Americans. “This campaign is about a political revolution,” he said three times, “to not only elect the president, but to transform this country.”
At every turn, Clinton scoffed at his debate lines as so many pipe dreams. Trashing Obamacare and starting over, she argued, was a political non-starter in an atmosphere where only President Obama’s veto has saved the controversial law from repeal. Free education for everyone is a lovely idea, but she asked how you pay for it with a Republican Congress uninterested in new spending? And empowering Iran to fight a proxy war with ISIS, she said, was plain dangerous.
Instead, Clinton sold herself as a pragmatic dealmaker. “I will go anywhere to meet with anyone at any time to find common ground,” Clinton said in her pitch. “I look out here I see a lot of my friends from the Congress. And I know that they work at it every single day because maybe you can only find a little sliver of common ground to cooperate with somebody from the other party.”
If Sanders and Clinton were in business together, he'd be the dreamy one pitching the next big thing while she'd be the hard-nosed one arguing that they need to stay within their budget. The decision voters will have to make is: do they want big dreams or clear-eyed realism?
Sanders entered the debate with momentum on his side in the first two voting states, Iowa and New Hampshire where his populist rhetoric seems to be resonating. And Clinton’s answers may be more nuance than voters looking for easy 30-second sound bites can digest.
For Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, much of what is wrong in America comes down to Wall Street: the broken healthcare system, the Washington dysfunction (saying that it’s a “myth” Republicans and Democrats hate each other, they’re merely controlled by billionaires who do) and the racial divides.
His biggest attack on Clinton is that in one year she took $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, a company that just paid a $5 billion fine for financial wrong doing. He said Clinton would stack the White House with banker advisers since she’s so beholden to them.
The former First Lady and Secretary of State’s criticisms where much more wide-ranging, taking Sanders on for his stance on guns, healthcare, his previous criticisms on President Obama, education, raising taxes on the middle class and being soft on Iran.
The Democrats on the stage largely agreed on several issues including how to address the heroin epidemic, the need to balance privacy and surveillance, the danger of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad is, climate change, raising the minimum wage and the broken the criminal justice system.
Also on the stage was former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who is polling at one percent in many surveys nationwide and for whom tonight’s debate represented the last best chance to break out and raise his profile to voters. Strangely, O’Malley focused most on immigration reform, an issue where the three Democratic candidates are largely united in their opposition to Republican criticisms.
What O’Malley and Sanders largely failed to do was focus on African-American issues— ostensibly the theme of a debate which was co-hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, held on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and at a Charleston arena less than a block from Emanuel AME, the historic black church where nine parishioners where shot to death by a white supremacist in June. Clinton holds a commanding lead with African-Americans and many consider South Carolina, where blacks make up more than 60 percent of the primary electorate, to be her firewall.
In the debate, Clinton showed a deftness in speaking to African-American voters. When asked what issues had been left out of the campaign in the final question, O’Malley said immigration, Sanders said campaign finance reform and Clinton said the lead poisoning of the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, a city with a 57 percent African American population. Clinton got the loudest cheers in the room for that response.
When asked how he planned to appeal to minority voters, Sanders said he believed his economic populism would carry the day.
“When the African-American community becomes familiar with my Congressional record and with our agenda and with our views on the economy and criminal justice just as the general population has become more supportive so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community,” Sanders said. “We have the momentum. We’re on a path to a victory.”
The room was largely silent, with a smattering of polite applause. Sander’s American dream may be popular in the largely white Iowa and New Hampshire, but until he can prove himself to minority populations, his dreams of becoming president are black and white while Clinton's are in technicolor.