At The New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Debate, Populism Wins

(Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

At The New Hampshire Democratic Presidential Debate, Populism Wins

The face-off between Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton last night in New Hampshire highlighted the strengths and vulnerabilities of both. Both put in impressive, strong performances. Both got their message out. Voters are left to decide whom they choose to believe.

Populism Wins

The clear victor of the night was populism. Sanders, of course, drove that subject, with his core message of a rigged economy and a corrupted politics. Clinton chose once more to compete as a progressive populist, both rhetorically and with stronger rhetoric about breaking up banks, and taking on the drug and insurance companies.

Populism sets the terms of the debate in the Democratic Party. Sanders champions it; Clinton has chosen to embrace it. It is amazing to watch a debate in which the two Democratic candidates argue about who is the real progressive.

The Sanders Challenge

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.

The Clinton Response

Clinton's response to this is that Sanders is overpromising. She claimed to be a "progressive who gets things done," and won't "make promises I can't keep." She shared Sanders big goals, she said, but she knows how to fight and make progress.

The chattering classes generally scorn Sanders' political revolution and paint as realistic Clinton's call for "working with committees"; reaching out to Republicans, Democrats and independents; and unearthing, as she put it in an earlier town hall, "slivers" of common ground.

But we all witnessed Republican scorched-earth obstruction of anything President Obama proposed. No one expects Republicans to lose control of the Congress in 2016. If Republicans dislike Obama, they loathe Clinton. It's hardly plausible that she could get more done. That reality gives the lie to her statement that she's not making promises she can't keep. Sanders' political revolution may be the only way even Clinton's promises could see the light of day.

The Sanders Indictment: Money and Corruption

Last night, Sanders continued to highlight the contrast between his decision to fund his campaign with small donations and forgo building a super PAC, and Clinton raking in big donations from Wall Street, insurance companies and others. These banks and companies aren't making their contributions for nothing. They are seeking and often get a remarkable return on their dollar.

When asked why Clinton enjoyed the most endorsements, even from Democrats in his home state, Sanders said that was not surprising since Clinton was part of the "establishment."

The Clinton Response

Clinton clearly came armed with prepared responses. She claimed that Sanders "is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment." But as The Washington Post noted, it is hard to think of a former first lady, senator and secretary of state, center of the Clinton political powerhouse as anything but establishment. The so-called "woman card" felt lame here.

Clinton treated the questions about her big-money donors as a personal insult: "a very artful smear," suggesting that she had been bought. She claimed that she never had a vote or position influenced by money. She upbraided Sanders for voting for the bill to deregulate swaps and derivatives (her husband's bill wrapped in a must-pass appropriations measure), allowing that she wasn't "impugning his motives."

Sanders chose not to go after Clinton directly, but made the common-sense point: these banks are investing millions in candidates not for fun; they expect and get a return on their money. Clinton argues that hedge funds are spending millions against her. But Wall Street is buying into her campaign also, hedging their bets as they always do.

The Wall Street Connection

Clinton looked defensive as the moderators quizzed her on her Wall Street donors and speaking fees, picking up on her uncomfortable response Wednesday night on why she pocketed so much for speeches to Goldman Sachs ("That's what they offered"). She said she hadn't explained her record and then proceeded to vastly exaggerate how she called out Wall Street before the crash.

She claimed once more that she had the most comprehensive plan to curb Wall Street, better than that supported by Sanders (and Sen. Elizabeth Warren). When the moderators pressed her to release transcripts of her speeches to the banks, she said only that she'd "look into it."

Foreign Policy

When the moderators turned to foreign policy, the debate also turned. Sanders appeared less confident and passionate in his material. Clinton presented herself as on top of the game. Sanders chose to minimize differences; Clinton attacked his lack of experience, advisors and his policy suggestions.

Sanders returned continually to the Iraq War vote where he voted against, and Clinton for. Judgment, he argued, can trump experience. But on other questions, he looked less certain and sought generally to minimize differences with Clinton. He passed on the opportunity to issue a serious critique of Clinton's predilection for intervention and regime change.

Moderator Drivel

The end of the debate descended into inane moderator drivel, most of it looking for a fight - on Clinton's email, on Sander's campaign incidents, on Iowa's caucus results, what priorities you'd have in office (both ducked). These just wasted time, with neither candidate taking the bait.

Bizarrely, there were no questions on the economy: how to generate growth, whether to worry about a global recession. There were no questions on taxes. No questions on climate change. Trade and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) were finally touched on towards the end, with the difference in passion and logic apparent.

The moderators and format allowed the candidates to have extended exchanges. People saw a still courtly Bernie Sanders and a more combative Hillary Clinton.

Sanders' argument about the corrupting effects of money in politics and the need to break up the big banks was compelling. Clinton's profession of independence was less plausible.

Clinton's foreign policy experience certainly showed. But Democrats have to be haunted by her taste for intervention and regime change (Iraq, Libya, Syria). And sadly, the push for a new cold war with Russia went unchallenged.

The race in New Hampshire will inevitably draw closer. Sanders will stay with his core passion, and the need for people to rise up to change this corrupted system. Clinton will close, as she did in Iowa, with more populist positions, combined a claim to be more able to get things done on the inside. Voters will decide which is more plausible.

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