Sanders Was the Star of Democrats’ Debate - but Clinton Was the Winner

The violence that has consumed Israel in recent days wasn’t mentioned once in the 2-hour CNN broadcast of the presidential hopefuls.

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Democratic presidential candidates U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (L) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton debate duringthe first official Democratic candidates debate of the 2016 presidential cCredit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The first Democratic Party debate held on Tuesday night in Las Vegas pitted Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders with three irrelevant extras on the sidelines. The contest was close, perhaps it even ended in a tie, but the clear winner was nonetheless Clinton. After her largely cool and confident showing, most Democrats will probably see the potential candidacy of the endlessly equivocating Vice President Joe Biden as almost superfluous.

Make no mistake: it was Sanders who stole the show. His booming line to Clinton “The American people are sick of hearing about your damned emails” will undoubtedly be replayed endlessly on social media over the next few days. After the GOP’s House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy spilled the beans about the political motivation behind the Republicans’ Congressional probes into the 2012 Benghazi attack and the ensuing email scandal, Clinton has been recast as victim rather than perpetrator. Sanders wisely chose to be cast as her knight in shining armor come to her rescue, much to the delight of both Clinton as well as the audience.

Throughout the two hour CNN broadcast of the debate, Sanders was fiery and scathing, Clinton the consummate professional. The other three Musketeers probably failed to break out of their previous anonymity: Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has an annoyingly tinny voice and seemed far less charismatic than advertised; former Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, who only became a Democrat in recent years, made some peculiar statements, describing himself as “a block of granite” and admitting that he had voted for an important law without really knowing what it was about; and former Virginian Senator Jim Webb, the most hawkish of the lot, would have done very well  -  if only he was running as Republican. Webb also provided the most awkward moment of the night, when he alluded, with a smirk, to killing an enemy soldier while serving in the Vietnam War.

The smaller forum allowed the Democrats to conduct a quieter and more substantive debate than those between the GOP masses. Most of the questions focused on the topics that preoccupy the increasingly progressive Democrats who vote in the primaries: climate change, income inequality, sinister Wall Street and the “casino billionaire economy”, as Sanders described it, which is decimating America’s middle class and exerting increasing influence over its politics. The legalization of marijuana was also highlighted, with Sanders coming down in favor and Clinton preferring to wait and see.

Foreign affairs took up only a small part of the debate, concentrating on Iran, China and Russian intervention in Syria. The outbreak of violence in Israel, which has consumed Israelis and preoccupied American Jews in recent days, wasn’t even mentioned; only Webb extolled “our greatest ally Israel.” The omission may perturb some Israelis, including those who had hitherto complained that such events were garnering way too much attention.

Clinton reiterated her view that the Obama administration should have been more proactive in assisting Syrian rebels from the outset, but generally seemed to be embracing Obama’s legacy as her own. She is doing so because the President continues to enjoy wide support among party loyalists, to preempt Biden’s potential claim to be the President’s true successor and to neutralize Sanders’ effort to own Obama’s progressive agenda.

Nonetheless, Sanders was the debate’s headline grabber, with his overpowering voice, his jittery movements and his outspoken and unabashed “socialist” positions. Although he can’t rival Donald Trump’s ratings-generating buffoonery, Sanders represents another face of the American wish for a “political revolution”, which he actually called for. Together with Trump, Sanders’ popularity shows the American public’s yearning for non-conformist anti-establishment politicians who represent a business-not-as-usual approach to governing.

In Israeli political history, there are two historical analogies to be made. Trump might remind some of brash millionaire, Shmuel Flatto Sharon, later convicted for corruption, who ran as “the solitary man in the Knesset” in the late 1970’s and who was known for denigrating respected establishment figures. Sanders might be compared to the late Meir Wilner, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a long time leader of Israel’s non-Zionist Communist Party. Like Sanders, Wilner also spoke with a foreign accent – Lithuanian in his case – was also known as a dry, no-nonsense policy junkie and was also renowned for his dogmatic Communist positions, which were deemed beyond the pale in Israel just as Sanders’ socialism once was in the U.S. But the thought that the late Wilner might have turned into an Israeli idol with rock star status with tens of thousands of young, adoring fans is no less surrealistic than the reality that is today’s presidential race in the U.S.