Who is the establishment? And why does it think people supporting Bernie Sanders are asking for too much?
That, in essence, was the key question on Thursday night at the Democratic debate hosted by MSNBC at the University of New Hampshire.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rejected the idea put forth by rival Sen. Bernie Sanders that she could possibly represent "the establishment" of U.S. power and politics by arguing that as "a woman running to be the first woman to be president" nobody else would give her that label.
Though it's been a consistent theme of the campaign in recent weeks, Sanders made the characterization in the form a contrast not quite halfway through the debate.
"Hillary Clinton does represent the establishment," said Sanders. "I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans who, by the way, are not that enamored with the establishment."
Clinton said that was wrong. "Honestly," she said, "Sen. Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. And I've got to tell you that it is really quite amusing to me."
Amusing to Clinton or not, it has become quite clear that many, many people consider Clinton one of the firmest members of the Democratic party establishment—something that numerous observers (ex: here, here, here) appeared shocked to find out was restricted to only one gender.
According to John Nichols, writing at The Nation, Thursday night's debate was quite clearly a case of the 'It’s Just Not Achievable' argument from Clinton and her establishment backers (many of them in the media), versus the demand for a 'Political Revolution' espoused by Sanders and his supporters. In recent days, much has been made about how each candidate understands and defines the word "progressive."
In a blog post at the Campaign for America's Future, co-director Robert Borosage framed the debate as a battle over what each candidate believes is politically possible:
Sanders dominated the early portion of the debate, repeating his core message about the rigged economy and corrupted politics. In response to moderators quoting Clinton saying “It’s very hard to see how any of his proposals could ever be achievable,” Sanders reminded voters that “these are not radical ideas.”
He took on Clinton’s “No, We Can’t” refrain directly: Every major country in the world “has managed to provide health care to all people as a right and they are spending significantly less per capita on health care than we are. So I do not accept the belief that the United States of America can’t do that.” The same is true, he said, with tuition-free college and standing up to the ripoff of the drug companies.
Sanders’ argument is that our politics are corrupted and the rules are rigged to block these and other reforms. So we need a political revolution – millions of Americans standing up and demanding change – if we are to break the hold of big money and entrenched interests.
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And with both candidates increasingly willing to make such contrasts between them known, as Nichols points out, Sanders made perhaps "the most powerful statement of the night—and one of the most powerful statements of the campaign" when he was given a chance to explain why Clinton's close ties with Wall Street—and the money she's received from investment firms and big banks in terms of campaign contributions and for speaking fees after she left State Department—should be concerning to voters.
As Nichols recounts the exchange:
“Let’s talk—let’s talk about issues, all right?” he began. “Let’s talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided—spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.
The crowd was laughing.
“Let’s ask why it is that we pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, and your medicine can be doubled tomorrow, and there’s nothing that the government can do to stop it. You think it has anything to do with the huge amounts of campaign contributions and lobbying from the fossil-fuel industry [sic]?”
The crowd was clapping.
“Let’s talk about climate change. Do you think there’s a reason why not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real, and that we need to transform our energy system? Do you think it has anything to do with the Koch brothers and ExxonMobil pouring huge amounts of money into the political system?”
The crowd was cheering.
“That is what goes on in America,” Sanders continued. “You know, there is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. And in my view, it is undermining American democracy and it is allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors and not the working families of this country.”
Subsequently—though Clinton indicated her paid speeches to Wall Street firms shouldn't concern people, that she is the most vetted candidate currently running for president, and that there is almost nothing voters don't know about her—she appeared flummoxed when asked if she would release the transcripts from those talks to the public.
Asked by the moderators, who said reporting shows that transcripts appeared to have been produced for those speeches, Clinton dodged. "I will look into it," she said. "I don’t know the status, but I will certainly look into it." And, not one to miss another opportunity to invoke 9/11 when asked about Wall Street, she added: "I’ve probably described more times than I can remember how stressful it was advising the president about going after bin Laden. So my view on this is, look at my record, look at what I am proposing, and we have a vigorous agreement here. We both want to rein in the excesses of Wall Street."
That might be true. But as is becoming increasingly clear, these two Democratic candidates define words quite differently.