Ten million people watched the Democratic debate on Sunday despite Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s best efforts to bury it on a holiday weekend night after the NFL playoffs. All three candidates had strong moments in a generally substantive debate. By the end, the exchanges between the two front-runners, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton, clarified the choice they offer Democrats between change and continuity.
Clinton, the favorite, made a calculated decision to wrap herself tightly to Barack Obama. She praised his health care reforms and pledged to “defend and build on the Affordable Care Act” and to “make it work,” dismissing Sanders’ call for a Medicare-for-All plan as starting a “contentious debate.” She touted President Obama’s financial reforms as “one of the most important regulatory schemes we’ve had since the 1930s,” and promised to “defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street…and getting results.” She celebrated his economic record and promised to build on it. Naturally she defended his foreign policy record that she helped build as secretary of state.
Sanders, her fast-closing challenger, made his case for dramatic change from his first words in the debate:
"As we look out at our country today, what the American people understand is we have an economy that’s rigged…We have a corrupt campaign finance system where millionaires and billionaires are spending extraordinary amounts of money to buy elections. This campaign is about a political revolution to not only elect the president, but to transform this country."
While Sanders praised President Obama, whom he supported in 2008 and 2012, he made it clear he had differences with him – and that this country needed transformative change. He defended his call for Medicare for All, for breaking up the big banks, for curbing big money in politics, for taxing the rich and using that money to rebuild the country. While praising Obama’s Iran negotiations, Sanders has indicated that he would intervene less, and reform our bloated military budget more.
Incremental Slivers or Transformation
The contrast was most stark when the candidates addressed the question of how they would get anything done.
Clinton argued that she’d continue Obama’s frustrated efforts to reach out to Republicans:
“I will go anywhere, to meet with anyone, at any time to find common ground. Because maybe you can’t only find a little sliver of common ground to cooperate with somebody from the other party, but who knows? If you’re successful there, maybe you can build even more. That’s what I would do.” (Emphasis added.)
Sanders, by contrast, argued that nothing significant will change so long as the system remains corrupted by big money and special interests.
“Let’s be honest and let’s be truthful. Very little is going to be done to transform our economy and to create the kind of middle class we need unless we end a corrupt campaign finance system which is undermining American democracy…[W]hat we’ve got to do is create a political revolution which revitalizes American democracy; which brings millions of young people and working people into the political process. To say loudly and clearly, that the government of the United States of America belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.”
Continuity in a Time of Change
Many pundits speculate that Clinton chose to wrap herself around Obama to consolidate her appeal to black voters. (Obama is immensely popular among African Americans, who will constitute the majority of voters in the South Carolina Democratic primary, widely seen as Clinton’s “firewall” after Iowa and New Hampshire.) But even in the first debate, when she was still the prohibitive favorite, Clinton offered no policy difference when she was asked for one thing she would do differently from Obama. “I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had up until this point, including President Obama….There’s a lot that I would like to do to build on the successes of President Obama.”
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Obama has served the country with grace and dignity. His policies helped bring the economy back from the Great Recession; his health care reforms have provided health insurance to millions. He is popular among Democrats, and is likely to gain in popularity as his time in office comes to an end.
Yet, nearly 70 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track. The economy has recovered but most households are still losing ground. Obama’s effort to get us out of endless wars in the Middle East has been frustrated. Americans are clearly looking for change. Clinton’s great challenge is to establish clearly what she would do differently than the president to make the country work for working people. If the economy falters – as seems increasingly likely – running as Obama’s third term may have more costs than benefits.
This campaign has highlighted – in both the Republican and the Democratic parties – the public’s concern about the corruption of our politics. Donald Trump boasts that his fortune and self-financing free him to tell the truth, in contrast to “politicians” who must cater to those who fund them. Similarly, Bernie Sanders’ decision to go without a super PAC and to raise his funds from small contributions attests to his independence and credibility as someone ready to clean out the stables in Washington.
Clinton has argued, as Obama and others have before her, that while she supports major campaign finance reform, she can’t afford to “unilaterally disarm.” So she’s geared up a sophisticated money-raising operation, set up associated super PACs and nonprofits to take secret donations, and is on the path to raising unprecedented sums of big-money contributions. In the debate on Sunday, she fended off criticisms of her Wall Street support by equating them with an attack on Obama, who also raised significant sums from Wall Street.
But inescapably, Clinton’s decision to go for the big bucks and the fortune she earned in speaking fees from Wall Street, health insurance and other interests “unilaterally disarms” her credibility as an agent of fundamental change.
In the debate, Sanders laid out the attack. He decried the fact that one major bank, Goldman Sachs, sent the country two Treasury secretaries, one Democrat and one Republican, even as that bank, bailed out by taxpayers in the financial collapse, was just fined $5 billion for mortgage fraud (without being forced, of course, to admit guilt).
And he went on: “The leader of Goldman Sachs [Lloyd Blankfein] is a billionaire who comes to Congress and tells us we should cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Secretary Clinton – and you’re not the only one, so I don’t mean to just point the finger at you, you’ve received over $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs in one year. I find it very strange that a major financial institution that pays $5 billion in fines for breaking the law, not one of their executives is prosecuted, while kids who smoke marijuana get a jail sentence.”
The Choices They Pose
These are choices the candidates have made. Hillary Clinton, former first lady, senator and secretary of state, is inescapably the experienced, Washington insider. She has chosen to be the candidate of big money and the defender of continuity. She presents herself as someone who knows how to find common ground to find “slivers” of agreement for incremental change.
First elected to the Congress in 1990, Sanders has been in Washington longer than Clinton has. But he has chosen to be the populist tribune, the champion of fundamental, transformational reform. And he has walked the walk by spurning big-money politics and funding his campaign from small donations raised almost entirely over social media. His strategy gives his message integrity. Surely this is central to his surprising appeal to the young.
Clinton runs like an incumbent. She has the experience, the money, the best operatives, the endorsements of gatekeepers, and the universal name recognition. But she’s decided to make herself the candidate of continuity in a time of change. It remains to be seen how wise that choice will be.