Analysis

Democrats Clinton and Sanders Slug It Out in Tense Rumble

Debate ahead of New Hampshire primaries was riveting, but repeated too often could start to resemble Muppets Statler and Waldorf on the balcony.

Presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shake hands at the conclusion of the Democratic debate in New Hampshire on February 4, 2016.
Bloomberg

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders exchanged blows and drew blood in their Thursday night debate in advance of next week’s New Hampshire primaries. Most commentators, or at least this one, gave the round to Clinton, but only on points. Given Sanders’ commanding lead in the polls it probably won’t have a dramatic effect on Tuesday’s primaries anyway, though it could be a harbinger of things to come.

The first hour of the two-hour show was undoubtedly the tensest and most riveting of all the Democratic debates until now. Martin O’Malley’s departure from the race changed the atmospherics between Sanders and Clinton, plunging them into a testy one-on-one confrontation.

Clinton’s meager victory in Iowa, which Sanders doesn’t fully acknowledge yet, only poured fat on the fire: Clinton seemed incensed at the prospect that the 74-year-old senator from Vermont would reprise Barack Obama in 2008 and steal the Democratic nomination from under her nose. A stern-faced Clinton vented her anger at Sanders, though at times it seems that she was deliberately goading him to lose control and appear as a cranky old man. There were moments when Sanders indeed seemed set to detonate, but he drew back from the brink every time.

Sanders messed up on foreign affairs. Asked about the greatest threats facing America, he seemed unprepared, placing North Korea at the top. Then he mumbled, “North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one.” It didn’t come close to Gerald Ford’s cataclysmic 1976 faux pas, when he said that “The Soviets don’t dominate Eastern Europe” but it didn’t do much good for Sanders’ already questionable credentials on foreign policy either.

Israel, for the record, was mentioned twice, but only coincidentally: from the start of this campaign, and as a telling sign of the times, not one question has been asked in the debates of either party about Israeli-Palestinian peace. Iran and ISIS, on the other hand, feature regularly, as they did on Thursday. Clinton came up with a tart rejoinder to Sanders' repeated use of her vote for, and his vote against, the Iraq war and his claim that his judgment is more important than her experience in conducting foreign policy. “A vote in 2002 isn’t a plan to destroy ISIS,” she retorted, portraying Sanders as someone who hasn’t done much since.

But Clinton also had her bad moments. On Wednesday at a Town Hall meeting, she disingenuously said she had no idea why Wall Street firms and big banks were paying her hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees. Last night she was caught unprepared by MSNBC host Chuck Todd’s question whether she would allow publication of all the speeches she had made in exchange for all that money: Clinton resembled a deer whose eyes are transfixed to the headlights of an approaching car, “I’ll look into it, I don’t know the status,” she mumbled.

Clinton’s Achilles heel is the suspicion that she has served the interests of Wall Street, whose every mention on the Democratic side reminds one of cries of “Haman the Wicked” from the Book of Esther in Purim. Clinton’s hesitation raised suspicions that were compounded when she accused Sanders of using an “artful smear” against her, only to be booed by the crowd. She also raised eyebrows by overconfidently proclaiming that she is “100% certain” that the FBI investigation into her private emails will amount to nothing, though she did even things out a bit by informing the crowd of Thursday’s revelations that former Republican Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice had also stored classified emails on their home computers.

Clinton and Sanders continued their ongoing bickering over the question of “Who is a Progressive.” By your standards, she told him, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and liberal New Hampshire lawmakers aren’t progressives either; I am a progressive who wants progress, she asserted. Among other things, the argument is an ironic indication of the party’s leftward drift, given the fact that a few years back Democrats avoided the title of progressive like the plague, much like Israeli Labor Party politicians wouldn’t be caught dead near the dreaded word “leftist.”

Sanders insistence on campaign finance reform and revocation of Citizens United as the Archimedean point from which one can reshape the American economy was indeed the rallying cry of Teddy Roosevelt and other luminaries of the Progressive Era at the end of the 19th Century. For Sanders’ followers, we are living again in a Gilded Age of robber barons, in which, as Roosevelt said “There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task, but it can be done.”

But the senator from Vermont goes much further by declaring all out war on Wall Street and the big banks. Echoing capitalist Calvin Coolidge’s famous adage, “the business of America is business,” Sanders says, “The business of Wall Street is fraud.” One can be rest assured that if Sanders captures the Democratic nomination, the titans of Wall Street will invest a fortune in order to prevent his election.

Which is another angle to the sensitive point raised by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, who pointedly asked Sanders how he differs from Republican right wing radical Barry Goldwater in 1964, or Democratic leftist radical George McGovern in 1972, both of whom were thrashed in the presidential elections as they dragged their Congressional candidates down with them. Sanders said that one needs to marshal the kind of great enthusiasm he is generating in order to bring out the Democratic masses and achieve victory, though Goldwater and McGovern probably said the same before they were “destroyed,” as Maddow said.

These are the themes that will continue to dominate the Clinton-Sanders contest which will probably go on much longer than anyone anticipated: the danger is that the couple might soon start to be perceived as the cantankerous Waldorf and Statler from the balcony of the Muppets. The voters might get tired of it all in the end, but until then, the news networks are happy to provide nearly nightly debates as long as the ratings stay high. Bring it on, the TV executives are saying, and if you can, let’s rumble.