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In Debate, Hillary and Bernie Define Two Poles

'Hillary walked away with first prize,' observes Conniff. 'But the most significant win of the evening was for those millions of people in the Sanders revolution, who continue be inspired by a candidate who speaks seriously and credibly about building a movement to retake our democracy.' (Photo: AP)

It was, as Martin O’Malley said, a very different debate from the Republicans’: no racist remarks, not immigrant-bashing, no attacks on women, no clowning or pandering to religious bigotry, and a much more serious policy discussion.

In their closing remarks, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton summed up voters’ choice.

Bernie told the CNN audience what very few candidates, he noted, would admit:

“Nobody up here, certainly no Republican, can address the major crises affecting our country, unless millions of people begin to stand up to the billionaire class that has so much power over our economy and our political life.”

Asked how he would get anything done in Washington, he replied that it will take a massive grassroots movement to retake power from corporations and politicians who are content with historic income inequality, deregulated banks, a disempowered labor movement, increasing child poverty and receding opportunity for the great majority of people.

Hillary Clinton took the opposite tack. Asked if she was a centrist or a progressive, she replied: “I’m a progressive. But I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”

In her closing remarks, she drove that point home:

“What you have to ask yourself is, 'Who amongst us has the vision for actually making the changes that are going to improve the lives of the American people? Who has the tenacity and the ability and the proven track record of getting that done?'

In other words, do you believe Jim Webb, who told Sanders, rather patronizingly, “Bernie, I don't think the revolution's going to come, and I don't think the Congress is going to pay for a lot of this stuff." Or are you with Sanders’ supporters, millions of whom are taking a flyer on the socialist candidate who is, contrary to all expectations, one of the top two contenders in the Democratic contest for President of the United States? Caution and idealism are both defensible positions.

What was remarkable about Tuesday night’s debate was that the socialist candidate only improved his stature. The more conservative candidates are going nowhere. Webb, who emphasized his Vietnam War record and the man he killed in combat, did nothing to boost his chances. Chafee turned in a late-night comedy skit with his ridiculous answer that he ought not be held accountable for his vote on bank deregulation, since his father had just died and he was new to the Senate. O'Malley at least seemed prepared. But Bernie is still going strong. Neither Ralph Nader nor Dennis Kucinich, recent standard-bearers for the left, increased their stature with their Presidential campaigns. But Sanders is bringing a lot of people along, and he is making a dent in the American sense of what’s possible in politics, largely because the issues he talks about—yawning inequality, a corrupt political system, and grotesque injustice for the poor and working class—are now impossible to ignore.


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That said, Hillary Clinton is a formidable debater and a formidable candidate. She appeared the clear winner in the debate, drawing applause lines for her explicit advocacy for women’s rights and family leave, and with a strong and much-appreciated statement of support for the LGBT community. Bernie will have a hard time contending with her. Under fire for her Iraq vote, and her hawkish position on Syria, she sounded poised and thoughtful and better prepared, with a better grasp of the nuances of foreign policy, than any of the other candidates.

On Black Lives Matter, all of the candidates answered correctly when a viewer asked, “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter?” Bernie went first and, after being burned for failing to adequately address black voters’ concerns, strongly articulated the case for black lives. (But to put the candidates’ sophistication on this issue in perspective, my eight-year-old, who was watching the debate with me answered first: “That’s just dumb to say ‘all lives matter,’ because white people are not the people who are dying.”)

Democrats get an awful lot of credit for plain common sense in the current political environment.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper gets a lot of credit, too, for asking tough questions, but he did not hesitate to bring on the cheese: Enough about economic collapse and whether we live in a democracy, right before going to commercial break he announced the next round of questions would reveal which of the candidates had smoked dope. Stay tuned! Sanders actually made the dope question worthwhile, pointing out the injustice of long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, when Wall Street criminals go free. The other candidates concurred, except for Hillary, who demurred that the issue of legalization still needs more study.

Hillary held up under attack for her vote on the Iraq war, which Chafee and Sanders pointed out was based on transparent lies. She brushed off her change of heart on Wall Street regulation and free trade agreements. She made a bold, forward-leaning appeal to women by refuting the suggestion that we can’t afford family leave, and by shifting the topic to the Republicans’ outrageous attack on Planned Parenthood—just one of many big applause lines she hit (the other candidates earned far fewer enthusiastic responses.)

The headline of the evening was Sanders’s comment to Hillary: “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” which earned a lasting ovation, a huge smile from Clinton, and a cacophany of social media chatter.

Hillary walked away with first prize. But the most significant win of the evening was for those millions of people in the Sanders revolution, who continue be inspired by a candidate who speaks seriously and credibly about building a movement to retake our democracy. 

That was worth tuning in for.

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Follow her on Twitter: @rconniff

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