In the last Democratic debate before Iowa, Bernie Sanders had his best performance yet, and Hillary Clinton seemed nervous.
Bernie Sanders had his best debate, his loudest debate, and, yes, his I’m-in-it-to-win-it debate.
For the first time, he looked as if he weren’t simply trying out his Bernie-as-Larry-David-as-Bernie impression, but that he actually thought he could win this thing. Maybe that’s because for the first time, Hillary Clinton acted as if she also thought Sanders suddenly had a real chance.
This is where we are.
On the Republican side, The Donald, who got into the race with no idea that he could be a serious candidate, is now maybe the favorite to win — or, as he’d put it, to win so much that Americans will get tired of winning. Or as Ted Cruz would put it — Are you bleepin’ kidding me?
On the Democratic side, the Bern, who got into the race only because somebody had to, has somehow morphed from a message candidate into legitimate-contender candidate, who, Trump-like, is now citing the polls as evidence of his electability. Next thing you know, he’ll be drawing huge crowds of … Oh, wait.
It may not make sense, but, at this point, why should it?
As if to prove that politics is an irony-free sport, Clinton came to the South Carolina debate to cast herself as the defender of all things Obama and Sanders as an unrealistic naif whose overreach could destroy all that Barack Obama had accomplished in his presidency. It was, of course, in South Carolina in 2008 that Bill Clinton compared Obama’s candidacy to Jesse Jackson’s narrow appeal to black voters and it took months (and months and months) for the two sides to reconcile.
Eight years later, it was a giant embrace from Clinton, who spoke of Obama in terms that Democrats generally reserve for FDR or MLK or JFK. And she turned the debate into a say-what-you-will-about-me-but-don’t-take-our-president-down plea.
In just one example: Sanders wondered how effective Clinton might be in battling Wall Street given her $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and adding, because it was that kind of night, that Clinton’s Wall Street buddies were never prosecuted for anything “while kids who smoke marijuana get a jail sentence.”
And Clinton countered: “The comments that Senator Sanders has made that don’t just affect me, I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession. Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing. He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama.”
Yes, she played that card, and now we’re waiting to see how it played. It was part of the Clinton oppo research that was meant to show Bernie may be a Democratic socialist but that Clinton is an Obama Democrat.
This was not the Clinton who has dominated the debates by showing the depth and breadth of her knowledge and the smiling face of a Dem who’s been there, done that, fought the Republicans and lived to tell the story. She noted that Sanders voted against the Brady Bill not just once, but five times. She welcomed Sanders’s change of stance on gun-manufacturer immunity. Perhaps most effectively, she made the argument that Sanders’s program to radically reform health-care reform risked playing into Republican hands in repealing Obamacare. (Hours before the debate, Sanders released what was essentially a sketch of his single-player plan, which, surprisingly, got some early bad reviews from the health-care wonk community.)
This was Hillary shouting it out with Bernie. Bernie was angry about Wall Street. Hillary seemed angry about Bernie. And they went hard after each other on health care, on guns, on Goldman Sachs, on pragmatism, on political revolution.
I doubt if there was a winner, but that was the point. Sanders had fought Clinton to at least a draw, while Martin O’Malley, the Other Guy, was last seen begging for more time.
The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson had the best explanation I’ve seen for Bern-mentum and why a 74-year-old, self-described socialist could be a legitimate threat. In a political year all about the angry extremes, extreme looks like the new normal. When Republicans routinely call Obama a socialist who hates capitalism, Democrats must figure that being a socialist can’t be all that bad. In a stunning footnote to a recent Iowa poll, 43 percent of likely Democratic caucus goers described themselves as socialists. Only 38 percent said they were capitalists.
If Republicans could nominate Trump or Cruz, why couldn’t Democrats counter with Sanders? If Democrats, suddenly in a rush to the left, believe Sanders could beat Trump — and that’s what the polls show — why settle for Clinton?
OK, it’s still unlikely that Sanders could win. He’d have to significantly expand his reach beyond white liberals to have a chance, and, in any case, eventually the electability issue would probably overtake the campaign. But the polls show a very close race in Iowa, and Sanders, of Vermont, is favored in New Hampshire. What if Sanders won both states? What if dogs and cats were living together?
Clinton has said South Carolina, where approximately half of Democratic voters are black, is her firewall, and she spent the entire debate ensuring the firewall was in place. The political strategy couldn’t have been more plain. The great question in 2016 — now a Democratic question as well as a Republican one — is whether anything we know about political strategy still works.
Photo credit: Phil Roeder, Creative Commons, Flickr.