Littwin: Bernie Sanders is losing. Did all that yelling help?

It was the ninth Democratic debate, and even though Bernie Sanders seems to be winning of late, he’s actually losing in the popular vote, losing in the pledged-delegate vote, losing in the super-delegate vote, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise that a Brooklyn debate, with a loud and raucous Brooklyn crowd, turned nasty.

Sanders, who is trailing in the New York polls in the low double digits, had to do something to shake things up, but the post-debate question has become whether he did too much.

Most of the pundits seem to think he did. Former Michigan congressman John Dingell won the Internet by Tweeting: “Old Guy Who Yells A Lot Sick Of Listening To Old Guy Who Yells A Lot.”

But I doubt the yelling changed anything.

The debate was more or less a draw. And coming off as the unsmiling, grouchy, finger-wavingly-dismissive candidate — the one kids love because he assures them that they’re right and that their parents have got it all wrong — is the basis for the Bernie charm.

But dripping sarcasm (and why is only sarcasm “dripping?) may have been the step too far. It seemed just a little too Trumpian. I kept waiting for Sanders to call Clinton “Shillin’ Hillary.”

Sanders’ best moment in the debate came during his mild criticisms of Israel — mild by any debate standards unless the debate is for the Democratic nomination and unless the debate is held in New York, where, in 2008, 16 percent of voting Democrats were Jewish, in which case saying that Israel’s response to Palestinian attacks was “disproportionate” and that, surely, it’s time to say Netanyahu is often wrong are seen as high-risk charges.

It was, politically, a brave moment for Sanders, but I doubt it will cost him very much. Sanders, who also said he was 100 percent pro-Israel, is right in line with his base. And, in any case, Sanders is the one who sets the purity tests, which is why he apparently can call Clinton unqualified to be president — which sounds to many women like coded language — and probably not suffer for it at all. Or will he?

Bernie set the tone in this latest – and maybe last – primary-season debate with his ooh-you-must-have-really-scared-those-Wall-Street-guys-when-they-were-giving-you-all-that-money snark. These are two people who plain don’t like each other. When Clinton hammers Sanders on guns and Sanders hammers Clinton on her Goldman Sachs speeches, it was easy to pick out a winner – it was either anger or annoyance.

But one real difference between the 2008 primary and today is that it was only eight years ago when Obama’s “You’re likable enough, Hillary,” was seen as not only an insult to Hillary, but as a slight to women, a flip show of superiority in which men get to judge women on the basis of likability and, well, the like. The comment may have cost Obama New Hampshire — that or Clinton’s near-tear moment — and the long race was set in motion. He never said anything like it again.

And now?

Sanders says Clinton is unqualified, and while he backed down somewhat during the debate to say that, sure, she’s qualified, but that he doesn’t trust her judgment, it’s just another way of saying she’s not really qualified by Bernie standards.

Could you say this about a female candidate in 2008? (And let’s not forget the Donald’s rip on Carly Fiorina’s looks in 2016. Oh, better yet, maybe we should try to forget that.)

Is Bernie’s qualification rating for Hillary code for women in general? Is it the kind of thing that discourages some women from getting into politics altogether? It has played that way with some pundits, but how about in real life?

One of Bernie’s surrogates called out “Democratic whores” and he had to apologize and Sanders had to apologize for him, but it wasn’t clear whether this was more about Democrats or more about Clinton. Sanders suspended the surrogate.

I think Bernie does get a pass, but because he’s Bernie and he’s the least likely candidate to speak in code. He gets a pass because Clinton’s negatives are so high. He gets a pass because he remains a long shot to win (the betting markets have Clinton at about 90 percent). Or maybe it’s a sign that the issue of identity politics is vastly overrated.

When Sanders hits Clinton for her Goldman Sachs speeches and her unwillingness to release the transcripts, that’s exactly what he should be hitting her for, sarcastically or not. It made for an uncomfortable Clinton night, in which she would actually complain that Sanders calls her the establishment candidate. Umm, she is the establishment candidate.

But maybe there is more at work here. Clinton’s best moment of the night came near the end of the debate when, for the first time in the debate season, someone brought up abortion and women’s rights. She jumped all over it. She asked why this question hadn’t been asked before in a season in which abortion rights are so clearly under attack. It’s a question she should own. There’s no good answer for it, except maybe this: Sanders may be losing the race, but Clinton is losing the agenda.

Photo credit: DonkeyHotey, Creative Commons, Flickr


  1. Should the media be saying Bernie has been winning of late, although this story minimizes its importance. He hasn’t really been winning anything. A caucus is unrepresentative and undemocratic. It is ripe for manipulators like Bernie. His followers can spend several hours at a Twilight Zone meeting and win an entire state with only 4 percent of the voters involved, according to 538. In the background the big primaries were approaching like the Titantic drawn to the iceberg. Now that he is about to be smashed he is angry. It is understandable but suggests he is not equipped for a job where much tougher things will have to be dealt with.

  2. I saw some parts of the debate but truthfully not all of it. The parts I did like were about NATO and Gun control. But before I get into that let me address your point about the debate being a “toss-up”! Or as you say more or less a draw. By sheer coincidence you are in agreement with a 880 Newsradio WBS in NYC. How do I know this fact. I was getting so anxious as the debate was drawing to a close that I needed to ask one the radio and TV types I frequently consult or leave my opinion with. However it must be the New York connection in me via Plattsburg New York that disagreed with them when I called to their newsroom and I respectfully disagree with you also Mr. Littwin I saw “Hilz” (Former Secretary Clinton) as the winner in the debate. This was qualified when I saw the post debate review with Anderson and his panel. Most of them agreed that Secretary Clinton had the upper hand. I will also cite another example. In South Carolina before we went to the polls (no I am not from here or actually from anywhere I can really claim as home I grew up military)Hillary destroyed Bernie Sanders in debate in constituent support and so on. One of her backers is Carley Roney. Carley came all the way down from BROOKLYN NYC! She was actually in my neighborhood canvassing. She saw my weather worn “Obama and Biden” bumper sticker on my mailbox. I shook her hand and she took some pictures of a major “Hilz” supporter as she calls her. And then she was gone. Later on “Hilz” took South Carolina with ease. I believe that Mrs. Roney I call her “Brooklyn” had a major stake in rallying the city of Brooklyn and New York in general to put “Hilz” in the winner’s circle. And on a sidebar when “Hilz” gets to California I believe we will see more of the same for Secretary Clinton! Granted she has not won everywhere she has went and she still may not win all her contests. But rest assured I still believe when the smoke clears and when we all vote in November in the next Presidential election President Obama will be welcoming Hillary Rodham Clinton into the White House. And let me just say for those who are of the asinine bent that we don’t need a woman Commander and Chief. I have been fortunate to have lived in the UK and to have seen Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and when I lived in Washington State Dixie Lee Ray was the first woman governor of the evergreen and I am sure that there are far more examples than I can even name. For those that don’t want to see Mrs. Clinton as our 45th President in waiting. There is always our good friends in Canada or you can go elsewhere but live with it and stay.

  3. Bernie should shut up already about the 1 percent and the corrupt wall street bankers who took advantage of the law and made millions. Because frankly this old guy is a one issue candidate. And we all already know what he thinks about this issue. There is no depth in his loud speeches about wall street. He offers gifts to the masses but has no conceivable way of delivery, unless he eliminates every congressperson, and replaces them with handpicked replacements. I understand that he is a “true believer” in his philosophy, but in Bernie’s world there is no space for compromise. Poor Jane.
    speaking of Jane, I would like to hire her to do my taxes next year as she is able to come up with a tax rate of about 11..12 percent on their $200,000+ income, that’s better than the Romney’s and way better than my accountant.

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