The Democratic race made a dramatic turn in Debate VI Thursday night. After weeks and months of trying and failing, Hillary Clinton basically conceded that she couldn’t out-progressive Bernie Sanders, the self-styled socialist.
So if Clinton couldn’t out-progressive him — how could she, Sanders pointed out in the night’s strangest exchange, if she bragged about being pals with, yes, Henry Kissinger? — she decided she would out-Obama him.
And as Sanders was giving his many younger supporters a refresher course in Pol Pot and Cambodia and other various Kissinger outrages, Clinton was saying that her Obama friendship was the one that really mattered and that, she said, is where Sanders falls short.
It was a much easier lift, particularly if shamelessness is a guiding principle, as it is for nearly all politicians. Some of you may be old enough to remember the 2008 triple-overtime contest for the Democratic nomination, back when the race got so ugly that people wondered whether Clinton supporters would actually vote for Barack Obama in the general election.
They did, of course. When it came to it, the Clintons delivered for Obama as if nothing had happened between them, as if each hadn’t accused the other of playing the race card, as if no one had ever mentioned the words “fairy tale,” as if Obama were not seen in Hillaryland as the Great Usurper. And now Obama is delivering for Clinton, even if he’s winkingly neutral in the race.
From the beginning of the primary battle, Clinton has anointed herself the keeper of the Obama flame, but now she has gone further, accusing Sanders of making Republican-style attacks on Obama and then, in Clinton fashion, had all the damaging quotes ready for the audience and for the fact-checkers. Sanders called it a “low blow,” which it was, but, I’m guessing, an effective low blow.
It got even lower. From Clinton: “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our President I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Sanders was flustered. Or flus-tehed. One of Sanders’ most appealing features is that he’s at once an idealist and an iconoclast. And like many liberals, he has felt, at times, that Obama was too willing to compromise, too flexible when he should have held firm and — like, say, Clinton — not consistently progressive enough. This is not a new thing. Liberals have criticized every Democratic president, just as conservatives routinely feel betrayed by Republican presidents. In my lifetime, LBJ was forced out of office by liberals over Vietnam. Ted Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter in a primary. Bill Clinton was the welfare-reform-era-of-big-government-is-over triangulation president.
But this case may be a little different. There’s no mystery here. For Clinton to win the nomination, she needs Obama-like numbers from minority voters, particularly African-Americans who make up about half the voters in the South Carolina primary. While Obama remains extremely popular among most Democrats — you can consult any poll — he is particularly popular among black voters, and particularly when they see Obama being attacked.
And so Clinton referenced a recent MSNBC interview in which Sanders said Obama had failed in bringing Congress closer to the will of the people and then, let’s say, stretched the point, nearly to breaking.
“Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the Presidential leadership test,’’ Clinton said. “And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment.
“He wrote a foreword (actually a blurb) for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy. And I just couldn’t disagree more with those kinds of comments.”
Clinton probably won the debate on points — she didn’t get loud when Sanders got loud; she used Obama, once again, as a life raft when she was accused, like Obama, she says, of being waist deep in the big money — but the debate itself probably had little, if any, impact on the race. What Clinton wanted to accomplish after her New Hampshire shellacking was to show, as they say, a way forward. She hopes she’s found it. You’ll be hearing Sanders’ supposed hits on Obama again. And again.
And here’s the other shift in emphasis. Now that the race has left Iowa and New Hampshire for more, uh, diverse parts of the land, Clinton is saying the voters want a more, uh, diverse candidate. As Clinton said in her closing statement — the final words of the night — she’s all for making sure Wall Street would “never be allowed to wreck Main Street again.” But, she said, that’s not all she’s for. It’s not the only problem America faces.
“I’m not a single-issue candidate,” she said, “and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”
She then went on to name some other issues. Racism, racial justice, sexism, gay rights, workers’ rights, abortion rights, the right not to have lead in your drinking water. And as if to help out, Sanders went all single message in explaining that he would “absolutely” be better addressing racial issues than Obama — yes, he said this — because he won’t be giving “tax breaks to billionaires.”
OK, Sanders is mostly a single-message candidate. It’s his strength and his weakness. The intersection of Wall Street and income inequality has hit Democratic voters, especially young voters, especially voters in un-diverse Iowa and New Hampshire, exactly where they live. But now the race moves on, and the question is whether Clinton’s polling strengths among minority voters will change the race.
The Congressional Black Caucus PAC just endorsed her. John Lewis, the icon of living civil rights icons, said he knew Hillary and Bill Clinton from civil rights days, but had never met Sanders back then. Meanwhile, The Washington Post reports that Clinton’s Super PAC — I think you remember that Bernie doesn’t have one — is making a big cash buy that will attempt to tie Clinton ever closer to Obama.
So now Clinton seems to have found a message, if not a single message, of her own, for which Sanders has already fashioned his own singular reply: “One of us ran against President Obama. I was not that candidate.”
And this is how you’d expect it to go this year. You knew Obama would be central to the 2016 race. But who knew it’d be on the Democratic primary?
Clarification 2/14/2016: This story originally stated that the Congressional Black Caucus leadership group endorsed Hillary Clinton. To clarify, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC did, not the caucus itself.