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.
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.