You had to be a 32nd degree political junkie to find and watch the last Democratic debate before the Iowa caucuses. Thanks to Hillary godmother and DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, last night’s Democratic debate had 7.8 million voters, about half the audience for the first Democratic debate in October. While, as my friend Dan Kennedy, of Northeastern University and WGBH observed, most media bleat that Sanders’ momentum grows and Hillary is struggling to hang on, that’s not the way I see things.
This debate crystallized the difference between an insurgent idealist, not inexperienced, and a battle-scarred, significantly more experienced, center-left, forceful and articulate practitioner of the art of the possible. (The third candidate, Martin O’Malley, is a mix of the two, but a much paler version of either.) The health care issue is a case in point.
Admittedly, Obamacare has problems, including cost, flexibility of access, universality of coverage. Hillary Clinton rightly pointed out that under Obamacare 19 million more people have gotten coverage, preexisting conditions have been eliminated, women are paying the same rates as men, and young adults can still be covered by their parents’ plans until they are 26. Clinton wants to build on the Affordable Care Act foundation and make improvements in it.
Sanders focuses on the 29 million still uninsured and this nation’s highest per capita costs and prescription drug prices. He envisions a Medicare-for-all plan, effectively eliminating private insurers. He’d pay for his plan with an increase in taxes but argues that many consumers would enjoy a net savings because they’d no longer pay private insurance premiums. In an ideal world, Sanders’ single payer approach could be very positive. Many doctors are among the biggest supporters of the concept. But this isn’t an ideal world. We have to remember that, during the 2009-2010 debate over Obamacare, even with the Democrats controlling Congress, they couldn’t get enough support for including a “public option” along with the private market insurance choices. Sanders’ plan is just not practicable in this even less propitious political climate.
Not surprisingly, Sanders was at his strongest in his attack on Wall Street, specifically on Goldman Sachs and Hillary’s ties to that powerful firm. Sanders pointed out how Goldman, which gave us a Treasury Secretary under both George Bush and Barack Obama, paid $600 K in one year in speaking fees to the Clintons. Indeed, over the years Goldman Sachs was their #1 Wall Street contributor.
Sanders’ passionate pitch about our corrupt campaign finance system is also extremely effective. While both Clinton and O’Malley share much of his position, for Sanders the need to reduce the influence of big money is a force that drives him and motivates much political support, especially among millennials.
The contest between Sanders and Clinton – at least when it comes to domestic policy – reminds me of the quote attributed to the likes of John Adams, Victor Hugo, Winston Churchill, and Francois Guizot (it really doesn’t matter): he who is not a revolutionary before the age of 30 has no heart; he who is still a revolutionary after the age of 30 has no head.)
For many, it’s hard not to like Bernie Sanders. Feeling the Bern means you’re stirred by his goals, his values, his determination, his optimism and damn-the-torpedoes spirit. Even if liking Hillary less, you can’t help being impressed by her knowledge, experience, communicating prowess, and ability to practice politics as the art of the possible. That said, I wonder what she really means when she vows “I will go anywhere, to meet with anyone at any time to find common ground.” Didn’t President Obama implicitly suggest he’d do just that?
For now, she is wrapping herself in the mantle Barack Obama. In the general election, if she’s the nominee, this could give her Republican opponents plenty of ad material as she pirouettes away from the idea that she represents simply a third term of the President.
As expected, PolitiFact found some misstatements by Sunday night’s debaters. But this debate showed all three Democrats capable of drilling down on a wide range of domestic and international issues, a stark contrast to their Republican counterparts whose last debate was mostly fact-optional sloganeering and comparatively little substance.
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