Sanders and Clinton each won different parts of last night’s debate

Last night’s debate was actually pretty fun to watch. With Martin O’Malley out, the moderators were able to, in for much of it, simply sit back and let Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders go at it.

And go at it they did.

On balance, the end result can probably be best summarized as a tie. But that doesn’t mean each candidate doesn’t have a plausible case to make that they won. Those cases just rest on different parts of the debate:

Bernie Sanders is out of his depth on foreign policy

This has been a common thread in Democratic debates, but it was especially true last night. Every time the discussion turns to foreign policy, it’s very clear that Bernie Sanders wants that part of the night to be over. He conflated the religious and geopolitical factors that contribute to the conflict in the Middle East, he couldn’t think on his feet when he was asked a question about Afghanistan instead of Syria and he can’t articulate a broader foreign policy worldview other than “I voted against the Iraq War.” At the very least, he needs to come up with something from this decade to go along with that one credential. Thus far, he hasn’t.

This is a huge shame, given that there is a massive opening for a candidate to make a progressive critique of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy, which is much farther to the right than her economic or social views. Listening to Clinton talk about global affairs, it’s abundantly clear that she is simply more knowledgeable than any presidential candidate we’ve seen in quite a while. However, Sanders has thus far been unable to effectively make the case that not all experience is good experience, since, again, all he’s got to fall back on is the Iraq War.

This means that not only is Hillary Clinton able to, in a Democratic primary, get away with talking up the fact that (war criminal) Henry Kissinger thinks she did a good job as Secretary of State, as she did last night, but she is also able to include his approval on her website. Sanders has spent a lot of time and energy suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs call into question her credibility when she says she’s an economic progressive. He has spent no time or energy pointing out that, for a progressive, Henry Kissinger is a very odd person to count as a friend.

Speaking of progressives…


Bernie Sanders really is more progressive

This week and last night’s debate were both marked by a rather silly fight over the word “progressive.” To get a sense of how silly it’s been, the issue was initially raised during an exchange between Sanders’s and Clinton’s Twitter accounts.

Sanders thinks that the label doesn’t apply to Clinton, given her moderate-to-conservative positions on certain issues and actual self-description as a moderate earlier in the campaign. Clinton, rightly, has pointed out that, based on Sanders’s criteria, stripping the “progressive” label from her requires that it also be stripped from President Obama, most members of the Democratic Party and even, perhaps, Bernie Sanders, who has described himself as a moderate on issues like gun control.

But while I think Clinton wins the narrow point that the labels game here is silly and dumb, it would be equally dumb to insist that there isn’t real ideological space between Clinton and Sanders — in particularly on core structural issues, as well as economic issues. The clearest articulation of this difference came right at the end of the debate.

With many issues left uncovered, Chuck Todd took three that hadn’t been mentioned — immigration reform, climate change and gun control — and asked each candidate to prioritize them. Citing President Obama’s commitment to health insurance reform, Todd pointed out that a president is most likely to get the first parts of their agenda passed (“Had he put immigration reform first, perhaps that gets done and healthcare doesn’t”).

Neither candidate directly answered the question — it’s a minefield of a question since ranking one higher means alienating Democrats who care more about the other two — but they each pivoted back to more comfortable terrain in different ways. Here’s the first part of Clinton’s answer:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

I don’t accept that premise, Chuck. I think that we’ve got so much business we have to do. We’ve talked a lot tonight about what we’re against — we’re against income inequality. We’re against the abuses of powerful interests. We’re against a lot of things.

I’m for a lot of things. I don’t want to just stop bad things from happening, I want to start good things from happening. And I believe, if I’m so fortunate to get the nomination, I will begin to work immediately on putting together an agenda, beginning to talk with members of Congress and others about how we can push forward.

Clinton then recited a long list of things she is for — more solar panels, lower prescription drug costs, small business growth — without giving any indication as to which will be priorities for her. For a candidate who has criticized her opponent for fantasizing about having it all, Clinton seemed awfully close to suggesting that she can get her entire agenda through a Republican-controlled Congress, provided that the items on that agenda are small enough.

For his part, Sanders didn’t rank-order climate change, immigration reform and gun control, either. But check out the direction Sanders pivoted:

I am absolutely supportive of comprehensive immigration reform and a path towards citizenship for 11 million people today who are living in the shadows. All right? We got to do that.

But you miss — when you looked at the issues, you missed two of the most important. And that is you’re not going to accomplish what has to be done for working families and the middle class unless there is campaign finance reform.


There were a few problems with the specifics Sanders went on to list in the second half of his answer. For starters, he doubled down on his promise to make overturning Citizens United a litmus test for any Supreme Court nominee — a much more complicated proposition than Sanders is letting on. He also said that his next-most important priority, after campaign finance, was getting more people involved in the political process; but rather than naming policies that would do so, like national automatic voter registration, he suggested that he’d organize protests outside of the Capitol to pressure Mitch McConnell into accepting his demands.

But that doesn’t mean Sanders’s pivot didn’t make more sense than Clinton’s. Chuck Todd asked both candidates to rank climate change, immigration reform and gun control in order of which issues they’d tackle first as president, and Sanders was the only candidate to point out that none of those issues will be dealt with in any meaningful way given the political system we have. There are well-organized, well-financed interests standing against necessary progress on these major issues, and they’re operating in a system already biased toward the status quo. Sanders wants to work to change that; Clinton doesn’t think it’s worth the effort.

Which means that if you think major structural reforms are needed in order to tackle political inequality, along with economic inequality, then there really is only one person in this presidential race who has anything to offer you. Hillary Clinton is perfectly content to manage and work within the existing political system in order to make tweaks on the margins. Sanders wants to fundamentally alter the system such that bigger, better policy changes are possible.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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9 Responses to “Sanders and Clinton each won different parts of last night’s debate”

  1. Don Chandler says:

    Let ’em run.

  2. SlytherinQueen1990 says:

    Agree on the arrogant. But I think Hillary was more angry in this debate. Usually Sanders is angry, but he has damn good reasons to be lol.

  3. nicho says:

    The big takeaway — despite what either candidate says — is that once Hillary is asked a question that’s not on her focus-group tested, finely crafted script, she unravels. She get flustered, terse, and snippy. She also changes positions constantly. Don’t think for a moment that government psy-ops folks from Russia, iran, Israel, China, etc. aren’t compiling a big book on her disingenuousness and unreliability — not to mention how to push her buttons. I’m guessing they already have a pretty big book, but these Phony “debates” are giving them fodder they never dreamed of. They will be able to play her like a violin.

  4. 1nancy2 says:


  5. 1nancy2 says:

    Bernie needs to be the next POTUS. No matter how much $ is spent to destroy him, the billionaires “ain’t” winning and are wasting their $. Keep spending, utra rich, Koch types, you are going to lose, big time. We are saying we want and are getting a revolution riding the Bernie train. All of my friends, even repub’s are voting for Bernie.

  6. angryspittle says:

    Bernie is no more out of his depth in foreign policy as Hillary is ferchrissakes……..

    Jesus H. Christ on a crack pipe, she is the architect of the policies that have fucked up the world. She is all in favor of the PNAC plan to overthrow Libya, Syria et. al. that has been the cause of untold misery, death and destruction and has made a fucking mess in the M.E., she was behind the coup against the democratically elected government of Honduras which has made it perhaps the murder capital of the western hemisphere, she fully supports the droning of people (we seldom know who but they say they are terrorist masterminds etc) and other absolutely immoral decisions. She has voted in favor of war consistently……Jesus, gimme a break.

  7. Knottwhole says:

    My 84 year old mother watched with us. She said “Sanders seems angry but Clinton seems arrogant.
    I’m angry too”.

  8. Sally says:

    Can’t anyone grab a screenshot from the MSNBC debate? All I’ve seen everywhere is the one from CNN.
    I wish Maddow could moderate EVERY debate!! Of course, then Trump and Cruz and Marco would all run for the hills…

  9. 2karmanot says:

    Chuck Todd is a tool. The End

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