Here's What Happens When Hillary and Bernie Try to Out-Progressive Each Other

"Without Bernie Sanders," writes Pierce, "it is hard to imagine Clinton fighting as hard as she has to defend her progressive bona fides." (Photo: Getty + MSNBC)

Here's What Happens When Hillary and Bernie Try to Out-Progressive Each Other

Even if you don't like Bernie, you must respect that he's making Hillary defend her record.​

DURHAM, NEW HAMPSHIRE--As it should be obvious by now, the next nothingburger on the Clinton side of the menu is, "Release the transcripts! Why won't you release the transcripts? What do you have to hide in those transcripts?" To be honest, I, too, would like to know what Hillary Rodham Clinton said to Goldman Sachs that was worth 670 large. (I really don't care what she said to the American Camping Association. She can keep that to herself.) But, because this is a Clinton, and because we know what that means to the elite political press, you could hear the nothingburgers sizzling on an open grill (night and day) almost from the moment that my man Chuck Todd posed the question. So it goes.

However, this was a long piece of drama that peaked in its first act, when HRC and Sanders started throwing haymakers at each other over who was the true progressive, an argument that looked silly for the last couple of days, but one that took on weight last night when the two of them got all up in each other's grills about it. It began with HRC rattling off a litany that has become familiar to the campaign since Sanders fought her to something like a draw in Iowa.

HRC: Because I am a progressive who gets things done. And the root of that word, progressive, is progress. But I've heard Senator Sanders comments, and it's really caused me to wonder who's left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street; Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone; Senator Shaheen is not progressive because she supports the trade pact. Even the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for DOMA. You know, we have differences and, honestly, I think we should be able to talk about what we want to do for the country. But if we're going to get into labels, I don't think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times.

(I'd like to think I'm not alone in thinking that it is particularly distasteful to drag the late Senator Paul Wellstone into this fight now that he can't speak for himself, especially since, DOMA aside, he likely would have been raising all kinds of loud hell about HRC's coziness with the financial community. After all, it was Wellstone who wrote, " The American polity is infected with a serious imbalance of power between elites and masses, a power which is the principal threat to our democracy." The president and vice-president are good enough for the purposes of this argument.)

That got things rolling, but the whole thing went on afterburners when Sanders pinned on HRC the label of the establishment candidate.

SANDERS: I am--will absolutely admit that Secretary Clinton has the support of far more governors, mayors, members of the House. She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her. That's a fact. I don't deny it. But I am pretty proud that we have over a million people who have contributed to our campaign averaging 27 bucks apiece. That we have had meetings where 25,000-30,000 people have come out. That our campaign is a campaign of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, Rachel, yes, Secretary Clinton does represent the establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans, and by the way, who are not all that enamored with the establishment, but I am very proud to have people like Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva in the House, the co-chairmen of the House Progressive Caucus.

HRC: Well, look, I've got to just jump in here because, honestly, Senator 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--it is really quite amusing to me. People support me because they know me. They know my life's work. They have worked with me and many have also worked with Senator Sanders. And at the end of the day they endorse me because they know I can get things done.

(Actually, a number of women have run "to be the first woman president." There's Shirley Chisholm, to name only one prominent example. What HRC meant was that she was the first woman to have the record and the wherewithal to get elected and, of course, it's the whole "wherewithal" thing that's getting her in trouble.)

By now, they were fully engaged. Sanders once again came back to HRC's travels on the financial services gravy train.

(I mean, 670 G's just to speak? At that price, you better bring Richard Pryor back from the dead.)

SANDERS: What being part of the establishment is, is, in the last quarter, having a super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street, that throughout one's life raised a whole lot of money from the drug companies and other special interests. To my mind, if we do not get a handle on money in politics and the degree to which big money controls the political process in this country, nobody is going to bring about the changes that is needed in this country for the middle class and working families.

Nobody can say that HRC wasn't fully briefed.

CLINTON: Yeah, but I--I think it's fair to really ask what's behind that comment. You know, Senator Sanders has said he wants to run a positive campaign. I've tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to--you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don't think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you've got something to say, say it directly.But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.

To be honest, Sanders' general attacks on "Wall Street" and the "rigged economy" and the "corrupt campaign finance system" do suffer from a lack of focus and a lack of specificity. And that caused him to miss the golden opportunity proferred by HRC in that last sentence. Senator Professor Warren once wrote about fighting an awful bankruptcy bill and about finding an ally in HRC who, she says, helped convince her husband to veto it. In 2004, in an interview with Bill Moyers, Senator Professor Warren told the rest of the story.

WARREN: She voted in favor of it.


WARREN: As Senator Clinton, the pressures are very different. It's a well-financed industry. You know a lot of people don't realize that the industry that gave the most money to Washington over the past few years was not the oil industry, was not pharmaceuticals. It was consumer credit products. Those are the people. The credit card companies have been giving money, and they have influence.

MOYERS: And Mrs. Clinton was one of them as senator.

WARREN: She has taken money from the groups, and more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency.

MOYERS: But what does this mean though to these people, these millions of people out there whom the politicians cavort in front of as favoring the middle class, and then are beholden to the powerful interests that undermine the middle class? What does this say about politics today?

WARREN: You know this is the scary part about democracy today. It's ... We're talking again about the impact of money. The credit industry on this bankruptcy bill has spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying, and as their profits grow, they just throw more into lobbying for how they can get laws that will make it easier and easier and easier to drain money out of the pockets of middle class families.

Sanders either didn't know about this, or he couldn't call it to mind. Meanwhile, HRC proceeded to go about one step too far.

CLINTON: So I think it's time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out...

"Artful smear" really popped, and it got her pretty roundly booed in the hall.

The rest of the debate rocked back and forth. HRC pretty clearly won a long section on foreign policy, which actually is her wheelhouse and not ground on which Sanders can truly compete, except to remind America that HRC voted for the Iraq war in 2002. But this previous interchange--over who is a progressive and why, and about what is discreet influence peddling and what is not--would have been impossible had Sanders not jumped into the race and if he had not caught fire the way he has. It is simply not credible to believe that the debate would have been this sharply joined if it were HRC and, say, vice-president Biden were running against each other. Without Bernie Sanders, it is hard to imagine HRC fighting as hard as she has to defend her progressive bona fides. Gone is the DLC spouse who talked about "super-predators" and jailing incorrigible juveniles--mainly, African-American ones--before trying to help them.

This one small slice of the debate demonstrates that, at least for a moment, Hillary Rodham Clinton is being forced to campaign in a way that would have been unthinkable for her a year ago. Without the Sanders campaign, the Clinton campaign likely would have been an endless chorus of banality about "families" and "helping the middle class." It certainly wouldn't have been about defending her as a woman of the progressive left. This is quite the damnedest thing.

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