There was a striking symbolism in the setting of Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate. They couldn’t have picked a better place than Charleston, South Carolina.
Coming in the midst of a Bernie Sanders surge that’s unsettling the once-inevitable Hillary Clinton campaign, the event had a good many party loyalists hoping to gain some clarity about a race that’s suddenly become incomprehensible. Instead, the debate looked more like the opening skirmish in what’s shaping up to be a long, bloody slog. You could almost picture it taking place not in Charleston’s elegant Gaillard Center, but just across the harbor at Fort Sumter, where another struggle began 155 years ago.
This was a different sort of Democratic debate from the previous three. The gentility and bonhomie were gone. The gloves came off. Given Sanders’ poll numbers, Clinton was stepping onto a stage that she no longer owned free and clear, and she plainly didn’t like it. She was intent on cutting Sanders down to size, showing him to be unelectable, out of his depth or addle-headed. She tried pelting him with anything that might stick: his past gun control votes; his tax hike to pay for universal healthcare; his chatter back in 2011 about mounting a challenge to President Obama from the left.
Whether she succeeded or not depended on whom you liked in the first place. Her fans were claiming afterward that she demonstrated her competence, her grasp of the issues and sure feel for the sentiments of the mainstream. Sanders’ fans thought Clinton was flailing about, looking petty and desperate and failing to land a punch that the Vermont senator couldn’t parry.
As for the pundits, their assessments of Clinton seemed divided between backhanded praise and sympathy for her unexpected plight. At Slate.com, Isaac Chotiner wondered why her “superb debate performance,” combining “intelligence with a sincerity and a level of conviction,” doesn’t show up when she’s on the campaign trail or giving interviews. Over at Ezra Klein’s Vox.com, Dylan Matthews was more blunt: “At the risk of sounding tautological, Clinton lost by not winning.”
By the way, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley was also on the stage. I’m not sure what the point was, but apparently we’re supposed to mention it.
Make no mistake: For all its fireworks, Sunday’s Democratic debate didn’t match the name-calling, hair-pulling nastiness we’ve gotten used to at the Republican rumbles. There was no Donald Trump calling everyone in sight “stupid,” no Chris Christie snarling at Marco Rubio, “Nah, ya already had your chance, Marco, you blew it.”
Mostly what there was, it seemed, was repeated jabbing by Clinton at Sanders’ record and proposals, and Sanders repeatedly accusing her of ties to Goldman Sachs.
Their sharpest exchanges were on Sanders’ Medicare-for-all health plan. Clinton accused him of reopening the healthcare debate after Congress had so narrowly passed Obamacare and was still threatening to repeal it. She went after Sanders for proposing new taxes to cover his universal plan. His plan calls for a 2.2% levy on salaries and a 6.2% payroll tax on employers.
“I’m the only candidate here who has said I will not raise taxes on the middle class,” Clinton said.
Sanders countered that in his plan, “we are doing away with private health insurance premiums,” saving individuals far more than the new taxes would cost them. It was an effective answer if you were listening closely, but he larded it with so many numbers and subordinate clauses that it’s hard to know how well it landed.
He also mentioned that Obamacare has left 29 million Americans still uninsured. Liberals aren’t supposed to mention this fact, and Republicans aren’t interested, but Obamacare only helped one-third of America’s shamefully uninsured to get coverage. And of those, fully two-thirds got coverage not through the new Obamacare exchanges but through simple expansion of good old Medicaid in the states that didn’t take Chief Justice Roberts’ opt-out. But we digress.
On the other hand, Sanders was relentless on Clinton’s ties to “Wall Street billionaires” — with a particular focus on Goldman Sachs — as campaign contributors, as audiences for her six-figure lecture fees and as secretaries of Treasury in the administrations of her husband and his successor, George W. Bush. It was direct, hard-hitting and quite devastating, so long as we assume that American voters are as angry at Wall Street as he is, which isn’t yet clear.
Clinton parried that accusation by reminding the audience that President Obama too has ties to Wall Street. It’s not clear whom she thought she was helping with that line.
To the close observer, it was hard not to notice that the Democratic contenders were appearing just nine miles south of the North Charleston arena where the Republicans had debated just three days earlier — further from the Republicans’ suburban strongholds, closer to the urban core, right around the corner from the Emanuel AME Church where a white supremacist massacred nine worshippers last summer, and a quick hop away from Fort Sumter. As stark as the differences were between the two debates — in tone, civility, focus on substantives issues — the sharpest contrast was in discussions of President Obama.
When Republican debaters mentioned Obama’s name — as they did constantly — it came out sounding like a four-letter word. A casual listener could come away from the Republican dustup convinced that the American republic was in free fall, that Barack Obama was entirely and perhaps deliberately responsible, and that a Hillary Clinton presidency would be nothing more than Obama’s third term.
When Clinton took to the stage, she spared no effort trying to reinforce that impression. She seized every possible opportunity to wrap herself in the Obama mantle and portray herself as his natural successor — in contrast, she made clear, to Sanders.
In a broad sense, the tactic was meant to appeal to Democratic base voters who remain loyal to the president. On stage in Charleston, though, it carried a much more pointed symbolism. The polls show Sanders closing in on Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire, where Democratic primary voters are overwhelmingly white liberals. But he’s far behind her among African American voters, who make up an essential part of the Democratic base in later states. Nowhere is that more so than in South Carolina. Addressing the heavily African American audience at the Gaillard Center, she was hinting to them — and to Democrats nationwide — that she is Obama’s partner and heir. Charleston was a symbol of Clinton’s strength and Sanders’ challenge.
Sanders is trying hard to catch up among black and other minority voters. But it’s not going to be easy. The very essence of his message — and the essential difference between his democratic socialism and Clinton’s liberalism — is his belief that economic injustice is America’s greatest challenge. As opposed to, for example, minority rights.
Though he doesn’t say so explicitly, Sanders is trying to craft a politics that unites black and white working families around their common economic interests, pitting them against a common enemy — “the billionaire class” — rather than against each other.
Nobody’s really tried it since Franklin Roosevelt. It’s not clear it can be done anymore. But the battle began in earnest at Charleston.
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).
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