3. Understanding and grace
4. Standing his ground
5. Facts and Figures
6. Bernie’s Achilles Heel
After two days to think about it (including one day on planes), I’ve come to the conclusion that Bernie Sanders “won” Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate.
In fact, he won it about as decisively as anyone ever wins such a thing.
His win matters for two reasons. First and foremost, everyone knows who Hillary
is. Before Tuesday, few but committed progressives like me really knew who Bernie is. He doesn’t need to convince people like me; we’ll vote for him in the primaries and, if he wins the nomination, in the general. Bernie needs to broaden his “base,” and his fine performance in the debate will help him do that.
Second, the debate marked a contrast from the long and dismal list of televised disasters—depressing and corrupting exercises in policy as entertainment. There was some of that at the beginning, with the overhyped introduction of the candidates and the applause and catcalls. Some day, one hopes, even commercial TV will come to understand that the contest for the world’s most important job is not just another reality show or episode of “Oprah.”
But apart from that, what aired Tuesday actually had a passing resemblance to a debate on the substance of national policy. Anderson Cooper did a good job as moderator, pressing the candidates’ points of personal vulnerability, following up hard, giving candidates a chance to respond to attacks, and trying to keep them all within pre-agreed time limits.
But most impressive thing of all was the substance. The debaters actually discussed important and vital issues, at least as much as one can do in less than two minutes. They also refrained from personal attacks, smears and innuendoes and the endless verbal “gotchas” that have allowed the so-called “Grand Old Party” to degenerate into the Tea Mob.
In my geezers’ Spanish class, we often discuss politics and current events in Spanish. One student called Tuesday’s debate “refrescante
” (“refreshing”), especially as compared to the general level of partisan politics for the last eight years. We all agreed.
So Bernie made his mark in a national debate that was a good one. How did he do it? Let me count the ways
First and foremost, Bernie was by far the most articulate, organized and effective speaker. He spoke in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, all of which seemed to end smartly just as his time ran out.
Try to do that, under immense pressure, in 90 seconds for a reply and 30 for a rebuttal. It’s far from easy. Bernie did it flawlessly, almost every time, far surpassing the others. He especially outdid Hillary, who repeatedly used her commanding tone (and apparently her gender) to overrun her time limits.
When you’re trying to solve the world’s problems in 90 seconds and refute others’ solutions in 30, timing matters. So Hillary’s constantly overrunning her time limits just reinforced the impression that she doesn’t think rules apply to her.
Bernie’s superiority wasn’t just a matter of timing. Nearly all his answers made sense, were duly explanatory, and used simple but important facts to drive his points home. He took several chances, for example, to recite shocking statistics about our nation’s vast and growing economic inequality.
In contrast, Hillary performed as usual. She spoke around the issues, tried to capture all sides, and made lists. Even when asked to state the greatest threat to our national security, she responded with a list. Yes, Hillary, we know that lawyers make lists, and we know you are a good lawyer. But can you make decisions and prioritize?
With his New York accent (do New Yorkers ever lose it?), Bernie reminded me of a once-strongly-held prejudice of mine when young. I once thought that New Yorkers, whatever their social standing, had the best command of the English language among us Yanks. (In my youth, I had bantered about prices with a food server in a New York cafeteria, who spoke of “the exigencies of the profit system.”)
Bernie is of the generation in which New York City’s educational system shone as a global leader. (Full disclosure: both my late parents, like Bernie, were born in Brooklyn.) He shows what it once could do. Maybe some day it will do that again, with students of all races and origins.
In his tone of voice, stance, and enunciation, Bernie showed more honest passion than any other candidate on the stage. He left absolutely no doubt that he believes what he said and that he will, to his last ounce of wisdom and strength, do something about it. You can’t fake that sort of thing.
No other person on that stage came close. Not even Hillary, who was trying hard to show passion and “authenticity.” To be fair to her, I would have to say she came in second in the passion contest, with Martin O’Malley (especially on climate change) a close third.
3. Understanding and grace.
Tuesday’s debate had only two moments of surpassing understanding and grace. Bernie captured both of them.
The first came in response to a citizen’s question: “Do black lives matter, or do all lives matter”? My own thought on hearing that question was, “Is this a trick?”
It’s not a trick once you think about it. Of course all lives matter. But only black people have solid, objective, factual reasons to think their lives don’t
matter, reinforced by a long chain of despicable and horrible recent incidents.
Bernie understood these points and made them with perfect pitch. He began his answer with three simple words: “Black Lives Matter.” Then he explained why they do, and why the same question applied to others is superfluous.
Although short (under the rules), his answer was a tour de force.
No doubt it will soon appear in political textbooks. It didn’t sound in the least contrived. Bernie’s passion was indistinguishable from his indignation that 0.1% of us have as much wealth as the 90% majority.
As important as the BLM movement is—especially to progressives—Bernie’s second showing of understanding and grace was even more critical. Hoping to stir up some dispute among the candidates, Moderator Cooper had asked a question about Hillary’s private e-mail system as Secretary of State. Bernie responded as follows:
“[L]et me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right . . . the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails.” [After receiving Hillary’s thanks, Bernie continued:] . . . “[The m]iddle class in this country is collapsing. We have 27 million people living in poverty. We have massive wealth and income inequality. Our trade policies have cost us millions of decent jobs. The American people want to know whether we’re going to have a democracy or an oligarchy as a result of Citizens [United]. Enough of the e-mails. Let’s talk about the real issues facing America.”
With this simple response, passionately stated, Bernie accomplished four things. First, he showed himself to be a human being who can commiserate with colleagues even in the midst of a supremely competitive event. Might that skill be useful in working with Congress and seeking bipartisan agreement?
Second, in being gracious to his chief opponent, who everyone thinks is leading, Bernie showed the kind of courtesy and consideration that seems to have vanished from our public sphere. He reminded me of President Obama, as candidate, holding Hillary’s chair for her during their
debates. (At the time I thought that act risky, but Obama won. Bernie’s act of courtesy was less fraught, especially for feminists. It might even cause them to sympathize with him.)
Third, in using the words “damn
e-mails” Bernie showed his passionate rejection of the GOP’s “gotcha” tactics, from the Benghazi Witch-Hunt Committee to the persistent attempts by propagandists to distract voters from what really matters in their lives. In this respect, as in most others, Bernie went for the jugular of policy.
Fourth and most important, Bernie made a strongly implicit contrast between the Democratic debates and the carnival side-shows that have passed for Republican debates this year. “We Dems,” he seemed to say, “care about ordinary people and the policies that will improve their lives, not gossip and gotchas.” In so doing, Bernie made himself the chief and most eloquent spokesman for Democrats and progressives on that stage.
4. Standing his ground.
At one point, Moderator Cooper gave Bernie a chance to deny or explain his earlier description of himself as a “Democratic Socialist.” Apparently Bernie had accepted that label on several occasions.
As I have explained at length
, to intelligent people the label on a box doesn’t matter as much as what’s actually in the box. But for about a generation, Republican propagandists (aka “political operatives”) have made lucrative careers out of false labeling of people and policies. So while labels don’t matter much in substance, they matter a lot in politics. In many cases, they’re all the GOP has got.
Consequently, the question was a tough one for Bernie politically. He could deny the label, risk losing his reputation for “authenticity,” and be called a “Flip Flopper.” Or he could affirm it and undertake the formidable task of explaining what the term “Democratic Socialist” means to voters whom the GOP propaganda machine has conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs to bare their teeth and growl whenever they hear the word “socialist.”
Courageously and characteristically, Bernie chose the latter and more difficult course.
In so doing, Bernie got an “A” for courage and political savvy. He knew that (if he wins the nomination) his eventual opponents will make campaign ads out of whatever clips they can get of him using or affirming that label. So he didn’t fall into the trap of arguing about labels or of trying to weasel out of one he apparently had accepted.
In trying to explain why voters should not blanch at the words “Democratic socialism,” however, Bernie got only a “C.” He did note that many European nations have Democratic socialism, which for them means free, universal health care, free education, and free family leaves. He also made these points repeatedly in his other remarks.
Unfortunately, he never made the crucial point that what he believes in and has advocated all his life is nothing like the dictionary definition of “socialism” (without the modifier “Democratic”), which means government ownership or control of the means of production. No
Yank, including Bernie, believes in that
But in accepting and explaining the label, Bernie showed his political courage, avoided an obvious political trap, and began the long process of leading the public to the notion that free health care, free education, and family leave might actually strengthen families and our nation, rather than destroy our alleged moral fiber, aka suffering of the less privileged.
5. Facts and figures.
I hate the phrase “staying on message” with a passion. It reeks of the Big Lies that the GOP has used like Goebbels, from the notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, to Boehner’s nod and wink at the birther movement and his repeated, nonsensical reference to “job-killing taxes.” (As I have explained in another essay
, taxes don’t kill jobs; they just provide them in both the government and, through contracts, the private sector when broken private markets can’t or don’t.)
But if you speak truth, not lies, staying on message is not a bad idea. In our twitter age, the clever bon mot
or chop often trumps common sense (pun intended). And our educational level is rapidly declining, making it hard for the average voter to maintain a coherent thought for more than a few seconds, let alone a whole day.
In this toxic environment for thinking, repeating important, basic facts of policy is not a bad idea. Bernie did so beautifully, and on a number of issues. They included: (1) the godawful economic inequality that poisons our economy today; (2) our unprecedented levels of poverty; (3) our unprecedented and crushing level of student debt; and (4) the fact that we are the world’s only advanced nation without a national policy for paid family leave, let alone both before and after a new birth.
While these points sound dull and wonky, in Bernie’s hands they were not. He provided—by far—more solid facts on more issues than any other candidate. In fact, if you want a president who knows the facts required to make good decisions, Bernie outshone the others by a considerable margin. If you want a president in close touch with reality and the data that reflect it, he’s your man.
6. Bernie’s Achilles Heel.
Some think that Bernie’s stance on guns might hurt him. He was visibly more moderate on gun control than most of the others (except for Jim Webb). He endorsed reasonable measures to keep guns out of bad hands, but he supported the right of people in rural areas to keep small arms. He also appeared to endorse the notion of guns for personal defense—a notion that the NRA has blown into an extremely trigger-happy society.
Yet I don’t think Bernie’s moderate stance on guns will hurt him much. It might lose him a few votes in the primaries, but it will serve him well in the general election, if he wins the nomination. For those voters like me, who see his stronger approach to economic issues as absolutely crucial to national renewal, his moderation on guns will only make him more electable.
In a country where one out of three households own guns—usually a number of them—we are not going to solve the problem of gun violence in one or even two presidential terms. But if we don’t solve the problems of economic inequality and the systemic corruption that causes it, we might no longer have a democracy by 2024. So in prioritizing real and fundamental economic reform over controlling guns, Bernie, in my view, reflects common sense and his own instinct always to go for the jugular.
For me, the chief flaw in Bernie’s debate performance relates to foreign and military policy. There his key response was to a rather vague question, apparently intended to stir up controversy among the candidates. Moderator Cooper had asked, in essence, whether the other candidates thought Hillary might be too quick to resort to military force in an international crisis. Her initial support of the War in Iraq (without reading the National Intelligence Estimate) and comments made during her 2008 presidential compaign might justify that view.
Cooper sought comments on this question from several other candidates. Then he suddenly turned to Bernie, as if in an afterthought, saying, “Senator Sanders, I want you to be able to respond.”
To put it mildly, Bernie reacted like a deer caught in the headlights. While the preceding conversation had been wide-ranging, he focused only on Putin and his actions in Crimea and the Ukraine, saying (in essence) that Putin will come to regret what he has done and is doing.
I absolutely agree with the substance of his answer. But it didn’t respond to the previous discussion or to the charge of excessive militarism against Hillary. Perhaps Bernie was groping for a way to respond while maintaining his grace and amity towards Hillary. But to me he sounded like a man unprepared to speak on foreign and military policy in a comprehensive, meaningful way.
There, in my view, lies Bernie’s greatest electability problem. It’s not guns. It’s having been a conscientious objector in the Vietnam era and now being able to point only to the war against ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and the current wars in Afghanistan and against IS as recent military actions that he would support.
Don’t get me wrong. I support those positions. Like Bernie, I believe strongly that military force should be a last resort and that we have used it far, far too often in my lifetime.
But Jimmy Carter had a like military philosophy. He negotiated getting our Iranian hostages home unharmed, but Reagan got the credit because the then Ayatollah waited until one minute into Reagan’s term to release them. (Why pundits and some historians let an Ayatollah who was our self-professed bitter enemy determine who among our pols gets credit for lengthy negotiations will forever remain a mystery to me.)
Carter also kept us out of other wars and continued nuclear disarmament talks. But the right wing and our military-industrial complex has relentlessly vilified him as weak. In the long run, history will vindicate him. But as Keynes once said, in the long run we are all dead. In the meantime, we Dems have to deal with a large fraction of our Yankee electorate believing that Carter, although a good man and a good president, was feckless and weak.
The same is true of our current President. He has wound down two gratuitous wars. He has kept us out of another unnecessary war with Iran by making a deal to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power. He has kept us out of a ground war in Syria and has refrained from making the situations in Ukraine and Syria worse.
In my view, his judgment and record on military action and foreign policy is unmatched. But that’s my
view. You can bet that the right wing, Fox, the GOP propaganda machine, and the military-industrial complex, led by Senators McCain and Graham, will vilify Obama’s record on foreign and military policy and will paint Bernie as another Carter, but even weaker.
Bernie is far too smart to pretend to an expertise and interest he doesn’t have. Unlike Hillary, he lacks the knack for self-promotion that can make a single success in Libya (yes, success: the salvation of the rebels in Benghazi and the downfall of Qaddafi) seem like a whole career of hard work and good results in foreign and military affairs. And Bernie, even more than Hillary, bears the cross of age.
You can’t be president if voters don’t see you as a credible commander in chief. I see only one way for Bernie to address this serious deficiency in his campaign so far. He must find someone with impeccable credentials in those fields, secure that person’s consent, and name him (or a short list) as a possible nominee for vice-president or Secretary of Defense in a Sanders administration. Then Bernie must include that person or persons in his campaign.
This is not a new idea, at least with me
. After Cheney and Rumsfeld got us into two unnecessary wars and utterly mismanaged both, we the people deserve to know whom any candidate will pick for the crucial foreign-policy roles of vice-president, Secretary of Defense, and even Secretary of State.
If Bernie had a commitment from people of the stature of Colin Powell, Robert Gates and Ashton Carter to serve in those positions if asked, that would do as much to make these issues of electability go away as anything else that he could do. His doing so would also provide a marvelous example and precedent for future presidential campaigns, as I have suggested in my earlier essay.
So that’s my take on Tuesday’s debate. Bernie “won” it decisively. He proved himself not only the best debater, but also the most viable candidate on the most important issues facing our nation, all of which are at present domestic.
But Bernie’s Achilles Heel is foreign and military policy. Issues in those fields can arise unbidden at any time. Foreign leaders can even provoke
them to influence our own elections. So if Bernie is a serious candidate—as I and millions of other voters believe and fervently hope he is—he must begin to address this deficit now, long before the primaries start and even longer before the Democratic National Convention.
Footnote on First Names.
Readers of this blog will note that I consistently refer to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders by their first names. I know neither personally, but I have reasons for this practice. They differ between the two.
I have no particular affection for Hillary, but I mean no disrespect to her. If she wins the Democratic nomination, I will vote for her for president. I use her first name mainly to avoid confusion with Bill. I also don’t think she deserves to bask in whatever remains of Bill’s reflected glory. As a strong woman and a feminist, she should run on more than the strength of her married surname.
have some affection for Bernie, although I know him even less than I know Hillary. My affection arises from his fighting the good fight, at a ripe age, when no one else thought he had a chance. He is, in my view, the only presidential candidate who has any proper conception of the massive economic reforms that we must make to set our country right. Breaking up the big banks and raising the minimum wage are just the beginning.
I also use Bernie’s first name because: (1) he uses it in his own campaign, (2) we Yanks tend to personalize our relationship with our supreme leader, even when there is absolutely nothing personal about it, and (3) to use his last name and Hillary’s first would imply a deprecation of Hillary, which I absolutely do not feel. I simply think Bernie is the better candidate, just as I thought of Obama in 2008.