There was a time, a couple of debates back, when Bernie Sanders seemed far more intent on pressing his anti-Wall Street crusade than addressing the issue of racism. He wasn’t going to make that mistake again, not in Flint, not on the Sunday before a critical primary in a state that’s home to some of the most besieged black cities in the country.
The early narrative of the Democratic primary centered on Sanders’ dominance with younger voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but Hillary Clinton’s dominance with African Americans has pushed him to the brink, and he spent the better part of two hours trying to make up lost ground, taking full advantage of the debate’s background themes of urban decay and institutional racism.
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Sanders — who displayed an uncanny habit of steering any debate question back to the country-crushing predations of the financial services industry in earlier debates — spoke a lot less about Wall Street and a lot more about issues like drug sentencing laws, big-city infrastructure and his early fights against racism as a college student.
But the hole is deep (Clinton has racked up 50- to 60-point leads in Southern states), the former secretary of state had her own story to tell, and Clinton bested the Vermont senator during a testy exchange on gun control.
One debate probably didn’t do it for Sanders, yet if the Clinton team hoped the Vermont senator would go gently, the fierce urgency of his performance portends a long campaign still ahead — even he loses Michigan, as polls suggest he will. Here are five takeaways.
1. Wonk this way. Hillary Clinton didn’t stage a dramatic reading of her absolutely, unbelievably fantastic numbers in the latest CNN poll, Bernie Sanders didn’t talk up the size of an appendage (other than his oversized online fundraising operation) and neither called the other short, sweaty, dumb, duplicitous, lyin’ or little.
“I don’t intend to get into the gutter with whomever they nominate,” she said.
“We are going to invest a lot of money into mental health, and if you watch these Republican debates you know why!” he said.
The Democrats get to gloat about how much more substantive they are than the Republicans, and they have an indisputable point. Whether you agreed with them or not on policy, they actually talked knowledgeably about some — engaging in substantive (if oft nitpicky) discussion of student debt, infrastructure development, health care and welfare reform. The timing (Sunday night) and tameness of the debate (spitting mad, they both got, over the Export-Import Bank!) virtually guarantees pathetic ratings, the worst possible outcome in Trump-speak.
Donald Trump, whose ignorance of basic governmental realities (at times he seems to have struggled with core concepts like separation of powers or the fact that a president could be impeached for flouting, rather than enforcing, existing laws) won’t “wear well,” Clinton predicted. If history is any guide, time is on the Democrats’ side — in the form of a general electorate that tends to sleep off an intoxicated spring for a more sober autumn.
2. Spirit of Trump makes a cameo. All politicians brag. The difference between Trump and everyone else is that he seems to have been born without the part of the hippocampus that generates even a little bit of self-deprecation. But he’s raised the volume of the campaign, no doubt about it, and not just on the Republican side.
That thing he does where he bellows out the latest polls (after barely besting Ted Cruz in Kentucky and Louisiana on Saturday, he crowed about a recent survey showing him with half the GOP primary vote), well, the Democrats have started doing it too. For about three minutes, albeit very mildly, Clinton and Sanders traded barbed boasts about their own numbers.
Trump, she said, has gotten about 3.6 million votes thus far. That’s nice. “There’s just one more candidate who has more votes, and it’s me!” she said, referring to her estimated 4 million-vote tally, over than a million more than Sanders has gotten.
Not to be outdone: “I’d give my right arm” to run against the developer, he began to joke before adding, “Sanders versus Trump does a lot better than Clinton versus Trump.”
3. Sanders (finally) gets personal. For all his curmudgeonly cuddliness — in Iowa, for instance, one prominent Clinton supporter professed to be cuted-out by Sanders and wanted to un-muss his hair — he is surprisingly closed-off when it comes to sharing his personal experiences. Part of the reason is his stated mission to make the campaign about issues, not personality. Plus, he’s simply a naturally reticent person.
It’s hard to tell what impact that’s had on his campaign, but African-American voters tend to expect more personal candor from their candidates than New Englanders or college-campus habitués. Sanders, for the first time in this campaign, seemed willing, eager even, to connect — and he jumped on a question about his personal experiences with racism to talk about his arrest, as a University of Chicago student in the 1960s, during an anti-racism protest.
But the question that really picked Sanders’ emotional lock was an Anderson Cooper query about why he didn’t speak much about his Jewishness on the campaign trail. “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of who I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by” the Nazis, he said.
And then, a veiled reference to Trump and his failure to immediately denounce praised heaped upon him by white supremacist groups: “I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean,” Sanders said. “I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child. My mother took me shopping and see people who had numbers on their arms. … I’m very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
4. Hillary scores big on guns, auto bailout. In general, both candidates gave as good as they got. But there was one exchange that played in Clinton’s favor (at least in the primaries) and it zeroed in on what Brooklyn sees as Sanders’ most vulnerable issue: his opposition to a gun-control measure that would make weapons manufacturers liable for killings.
The issue resonates with African-American voters whose communities have been ravaged by gun violence. Clinton, responding to a question posed by the father of a young girl severely wounded in the recent rampage by an Uber driver in nearby Kalamazoo, complained that Sanders had voted to grant “absolute immunity” in the Senate.
Sanders responded with an answer fitting his day job as a senator in Vermont, where hunting is a bipartisan staple sport — or as a general election candidate — but one that may not play among the hyper-liberal Democratic primary electorate: “What you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America,” Sanders said — a statement the Clinton campaign will quickly spin as standing up for the gun lobby.
The exchange that got Clinton’s team most revved up was this exchange over Obama’s auto bailout — Clinton voted for it, Sanders opposed it.
“When it came down to it, you were either for saving the auto industry or you were against it,” she said, to applause. “I voted to save the auto industry. If everyone had voted as he did I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it.”
Sanders, on the defensive, said: “I will be damned if it was the working people of this country who had to bail out the crooks on Wall Street.”
5. Bill comes due. Seldom has a 2016 debate been such a back-to-the-future exercise, in this case the 1990s. A key part of Sanders’ argument against Clinton is that her husband’s 1996 welfare reform law increased poverty and contributed to a culture where poor, black people were “scapegoated” for being disadvantaged. He also hammered her on free trade — referring to Bill Clinton’s passage of NAFTA — and threw in a few negative comments about Bill’s crime bill (which imposed mandatory minimum drug sentences that disproportionately impacted poor blacks).
“If we’re going to argue about the ‘90s, let’s try to get the facts straight,” a hoarse and peeved Clinton shot back — before touting her husband’s successes in shrinking the deficit, expanding employment and increasing black household incomes.