In Democrats’ Debate, Clinton’s Evolution Fights Off Sanders’ Revolution

Compared to the GOP’s vicious mudwrestling, liberal clashes, fierce as they are, often resemble afternoon tea at Downton Abbey.

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Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the Democratic Candidates Debate in Charleston, South Carolina, January 17, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidates Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders participate in the Democratic Candidates Debate in Charleston, South Carolina, January 17, 2016.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Bernie Sanders started his run for the presidency as a curiosity, evolved into a surprising phenomenon and now he’s being portrayed as a credible threat to Hillary Clinton’s chances of becoming the Democratic presidential candidate. The threat was hardly removed in Sunday night’s televised debate in Charleston, South Carolina, but Sanders doesn’t look like a clear and present danger either.

The debate reflected the steady rise in the Vermont Senator’s standing in the polls: Much of the discussion revolved around Sanders’ positions and statements. But the erosion in Clinton’s public standing has very little to do with her performance in such debates: The former Secretary of State is a cool and calculated adversary, to say the least. Whoever advised her to minimize the frequency and visibility of the Democratic debates made a bad mistake: Tt only created a vacuum for the Republicans to fill and deprived Clinton of valuable opportunities to show her mettle.

This was the fourth debate, but it was the first that seemed generate genuine interest. The discussion, broadcast on NBC, featured fierce clashes at times, more on domestic policies, with which Democrats seem to feel more comfortable, and less on foreign affairs, where Clinton, Sanders and Martin (“Third Wheel”) O’Malley were content to endorse whatever Obama is doing. As in other places, including Israel, the Democrats were relatively tame even at their worst moments: Compared to the ferocious mud wrestling on the GOP side, Democratic clashes often resemble an English tea party at Downton Abbey.

Nonetheless, Clinton and Sanders are miles apart in ideology and approach. He wants revolution, she prefers evolution, he is full of fire and brimstone, she is moderate and judicious in return, she is a creature of the establishment, he is an outsider and a populist to boot, even if only in the neutral sense of the term: Sanders espouses “A political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite,” according to one definition.

At a time when public confidence in politicians and institutions is at an all time low, Sanders’ pledge to tear down the entire building and start from scratch increasingly appeals to many voters. Unlike Donald Trump, Sanders has doctrine, experience, self-discipline, and an ego of reasonable proportions; nonetheless, both are riding the same tsunami of voter discontent with the status quo and a yearning for something completely different.

Sanders focuses his attacks on the enemies that everyone loves to hate: Wall Street and the big banks that rig the financial system along with the self-serving billionaires who manipulate American politics. Small wonder that Clinton sustained her most serious injuries when Sanders zeroed in on her close ties to Wall Street groups, the millions of dollars she made off them in speaker fees and, more specifically, the $600,000 she earned from Goldman-Sachs. I won’t appoint a Treasury Secretary from Goldman Sachs, Sanders said, alluding to the firm’s alumni Henry Paulson, who served under George Bush, and Robert Rubin, who ran the Treasury when Hillary’s husband was president.

But Sanders got as much as he gave, and probably more. He squirmed when trying to explain why he is now for the gun control laws that he was once against; he erred when he published a comprehensive health plan two hours before the debate and seemed opportunistic and he was unprepared to answer Clinton’s claim that by doing so he was undermining ObamaCare, the president’s pride and joy; and he made a beginner’s mistake when he admitted that in order to fund his grandiose plans he might need to raise taxes not only on the big fish but on ordinary middle class Americans as  well, which is never a good idea in election campaigns.

Sanders was also backed into a corner when reminded of his 2011 “disappointment” with Obama and his quest for someone who would challenge the president from the left in the 2012 elections. Surprisingly, at least for the president’s critics, there’s no plus side to criticizing Obama, who remains highly popular among Democrats and even more so following the implementation this week of the Iran nuclear deal. In fact, Obama was probably the only clear cut winner of Monday’s night’s debate in Charleston, South Carolina: All three candidates expressed wholehearted support for his policies, with Clinton noting several times that she was actually there when it happened.

Nonetheless, though she said she supported the Iran nuclear deal and was proud of her role in achieving it, Clinton was careful to maintain a wait-and-see, distrust-and-verify attitude towards the Iranians. Sanders, on the other hand, want to normalize relations with Tehran, though not to reopen embassies at this stage. Israel was mentioned only once, by Clinton, as one of the countries who benefitted from the 2012 deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons. The Palestinians and the peace process weren’t mentioned at all, but unlike in the GOP debates, no one promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem either.

It’s hard to predict whether the debate will have any influence on the upcoming February 1 caucuses in Iowa or the February 9 primaries in New Hampshire. Clinton can probably survive a defeat in both, if they’re not too crushing, and hope to recover in later primaries in bigger states with a more diverse population, starting with South Carolina on February 27. After her performance on Sunday night in Charleston, Clinton is probably kicking herself that she hadn’t insisted on 2-3 more debates before the Iowans go out to vote.