I didn’t expect much enlightenment from last night’s debate and I didn’t get any. I was a bit disturbed to see the tone become noticeably sharper than in probably all the previous debates, and I thought the weight of the responsibility for that was on Sanders, who was generally the more aggressive of the two, occasionally sarcastic. I don’t agree with Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who saw Sanders as the clear winner, or Politics USA’s Jason Esley, who called it for Hillary. I thought both candidates had their stumbles and both scored points. Bernie, for example, was caught up short when challenged to name a single case where Hillary had acted differently than she would have if she hadn’t taken Wall Street money. Hillary couldn’t explain why she refuses to release transcripts of her speeches to the financial elite. Bernie zinged Hillary on Iraq and Libya and she got him on gun control. Both of them are nimble question-dodgers, and I doubt many viewers changed their minds either way. I gained new respect for moderator Wolf Blitzer: he and his colleagues generally asked sharp, on-target questions and persistently followed up (though with limited success) to wring real answers out of their evasive subjects.
The only really new ground, as far as I could see, was Sanders’ reiteration of the criticisms of Israel he made in his undelivered address to AIPAC. For any major party presidential candidate to challenge the dominant narrative of Israeli innocence and rectitude is unprecedented in US politics; to do so just before the New York primary is even more remarkable. Kudos to Bernie.
I am what you might call a “big picture” Sanders supporter. I like the broad argument he makes even though I often part company with him on details For example, Sanders pilloried Clinton for not clearly supporting a $15 minimum wage everywhere immediately, and she waffled and sort of folded. But many economists, even on the left end of the spectrum, believe that a rapid rise to $15 would be counter-productive in many areas of the country. Hillary’s position that there should be regional variations in the minimum is probably sounder than Bernie’s. I would also be more comfortable if Bernie made clear that he wouldn’t expect to introduce single payer health care, or universal free public college tuition, in his first term of office, that these are goals that he is placing on the long-term agenda of his political revolution. These aren’t practical political possibilities in the proximate future, and Bernie’s plans for paying them don’t add up. And Bernie’s tax proposals, while objectively meritorious, are almost surely toxic politically. Though weighted heavily on the wealthy, they would also put a substantial additional burden on the middle class. The Republicans would tear him apart over taxes if he actually became the Democratic nominee.
So, I find myself in the somewhat awkward position of a Sanders supporter with qualifications. I applaud his success in changing the terms of debate in the Democratic Party and thus in the country, in demonstrating a powerful constituency for significant political change that conventional politicians like Hillary Clinton can ignore only at their risk. But, as I’ve explained previously, I don’t see him making it to the White House. I think the progressive cause in 2016 will best be served by the nomination and election of Clinton with a reinvigorated left breathing down her back. Accordingly, I will be voting for Bernie in the New York primary on Tuesday, but my ideal outcome would be for him to lose by just a little. Paradoxical? Ambivalent? Maybe, but politics is about choices that are often not obvious or easy.
PS–A Note on Comments
There have been a good number of thoughtful comments on this site in recent weeks, prompting some spirited exchanges. It has struck me that all recent commenters have been giving their full names. That’s fine, but I want to make sure readers know that it is not necessary. If you have a comment but for whatever reason don’t want to put your name out on the web, please feel free, as others have in the past, to use a handle (i.e., pseudonym), or just your first name, or initials, or whatever.