Lincoln/Douglas it was not. Last night’s Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders face-off in Florida was substantive but problematic. The debate was feisty, often angry, occasionally misleading but, like the one in Flint, Michigan the week before, on a much higher level than GOP debates, but that’s not a high bar.
Clinton is engaging, smart and the most experienced of all the candidates, but years of being attacked seem to have created a kind of chrysalis around her. Her default position is to protect herself by being defensive, appearing to dismiss even legitimate criticism as unfair, even part of a right-wing conspiracy. The most endearing moment of the debate – perhaps even of the debate season – was, when asked why only 37 percent of the electorate find her trustworthy, she said, “I am not a natural politician, as you may have noticed, like my husband and President Obama.”
That’s not the only reason Clinton is not trusted or, for that matter, liked, by even some of her own supporters. Her campaign has been improved by what has turned out to be a vigorous contest with Bernie Sanders. In response, she has clarified her positions and incorporated much of his economic justice theme, which has attracted so many young people. She has become a more energetic progressive, tempering his overarching theme with the realities of governance.
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin divided thinkers into two categories: the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog views the world through the prism of a single big idea. For Sanders, it’s Wall Street, corporate greed and disproportionate power. The fox draws on a wide variety of experiences and understanding and sees the world in more nuanced terms. That, of course, is Hillary.
At this point, given super delegates and proportional representation rules, she’s still on track to win the nomination. But her decision to trash Sanders’ record unjustifiably, particularly on the auto industry, is unworthy of her and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Sanders, a longtime maverick, had voted for a freestanding bill supporting auto workers, but he voted against it in a later iteration, when it was part of the overall Wall Street bailout. He could take the principled position (the hedgehog) because his vote was not needed. The real question is how he would have voted if it were needed to break a tie.
Cherry-picking votes is fine as an opposition research tactic. But Hillary Clinton, as much as anyone, knows that legislation is often a messy business, a question of choosing the lesser of bad alternatives. Sanders, by the way, did his own cherry-picking, as, for example, his mentioning her vote on a border security measure that created a wire fence in certain areas on the dividing line with Mexico.
Both candidates were engaged in stretching the truth. Sanders misrepresented the impact of fracking, job loss from NAFTA, statistics on black unemployment and poverty. Why not just admit that jobs are lost for many reasons, and more will be lost as productivity grows by replacing people through robotics and other technologies? How to solve this issue would be a worthy topic for all the candidates to consider.
Clinton feeds frustration by refusing to release contents of her highly paid speeches to Wall Street, big pharma and other giant corporations. Voters are left to assume she’s guilty of saying one thing privately to those paying her $225,000 for a speech and another to the public. I wonder if part of her reluctance is embarrassment that her stock speech to corporate clients is so repetitive and cookie cutter as to reinforce the sense of her being overpaid. She should have released the speeches months ago and taken her lumps, understanding that her lack of transparency continues to undermine her trustworthiness.
The emails and Benghazi continue to dog her candidacy even among supporters, less because of the substance and more because they reinforce character flaws. Last night she did a better job of explaining the State Department’s retroactive classification of emails, a problem for her Republican predecessors as well. But she still seems uncomfortable explaining how the fog of war led to Benghazi victims’ families being told the attack was spurred by an American video rather than terrorist strategy.
At the end, Sanders came across as cranky and idealistic; she, sometimes evasive but also pragmatic. One post-debate analyst praised Clinton’s “dazzling mastery of policy nuance.” That’s true. But it may not play as well in a season that rewards Sanders’ big picture, detail-free themes and, for that matter, Donald Trump’s id-driven sloganeering. She may win the delegate race tactically and secure the nomination, but can do so with enough class and honesty that she can capture the hearts – or at least the votes – of Sanders supporters, which she’ll need to win the Presidency.
There is already an enthusiasm deficit for Democrats this year. If she fails to do so, it’s not inconceivable that we could have a repeat of 1968, when many supporters of Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hubert Humphrey, throwing the squeaker election to Richard Nixon.
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