Clinton’s Clever Debate Strategy: Cling to Obama in a Party That’s Already Missing Him

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Charleston, South Carolina
Sanders's posture might work, if he were a Republican. Photo: Andrew Burton/2016 Getty Images

If only Democratic primary voters were as furious at their own party’s powers-that-be as are Republican voters, the posture taken by Bernie Sanders in the NBC/YouTube debate Sunday night would’ve been a clear winner: Both parties have been bought by wealthy interests, and only an anti-corporate crusader like Bernie can avoid the terrible policy mistakes committed by and under the Clinton and Obama administrations. Indeed, if a sizable majority of Democrats thought the last two administrations of their own party were the corporate betrayals that many of Sanders’s most avid supporters consider them to be, HRC would be the perfect symbol of the continuing DINO establishment that had to be overthrown to install progressive governance. 

Alas for the Sanders campaign, that’s not how Democrats feel. According to the latest Gallup weekly presidential-job-approval tracking poll, the 44th president’s rating among Democrats is 84 percent. Among self-identified Liberal Democrats it’s at 89 percent; among African-Americans it’s at 85 percent. Yet it is extremely difficult for Sanders to make his case that HRC is too close to Wall Street or too militaristic or too timid on domestic policy without co-indicting the incumbent president. Hillary Clinton understands that, which is why she took so much care in the NBC debate to identify her approach to the regulation of Wall Street with Obama’s; to defend Obamacare in contrast to Sanders’s advocacy of a single-payer health-care system; to remind Democrats she was a major architect of Obama’s foreign policy; and to refuse opportunities to separate herself from Obama even though some consultants probably think she’ll need to do that to win a general election. 

Meanwhile, Sanders is on the horns of an excruciating dilemma: Even if he manages to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire early next month, the long-term success of his campaign will depend on a breakthrough with minority voters in the South and large industrial states who don’t particularly know or have reason to trust him, and don’t particularly want to hear the first nonwhite president — who has been, and is continuing to be, assailed by Republicans on a daily basis as a hopeless incompetent and near-traitor — being instead described by a Democrat as a corporate whore. Yet an implicit indictment of the Obama administration (and less directly, Bill Clinton’s administration) as compromised by corporate ties and hobbled by unprincipled centrist compromises is at the heart of the entire Sanders campaign, and intrinsic to the kind of activist energy he’s showing in the first two states and other hotbeds like the Pacific Northwest. 

Beyond that, it seems difficult for Sanders to think or talk beyond the Evil Corporate Cash Nexus to embrace other Democratic voter concerns. Even when he stops talking about economics — as he briefly did in this debate in a very well-wrought and comprehensive answer to a question about police conduct — you get the sense he wants to get back to his Great White Whale. In a conversation on climate change, Sanders insisted fossil-fuel industry campaign contributions were the sole reason for climate-science denialism, ignoring the regional, cultural, and even religious factors feeding the reactionary position of the GOP and the conservative movement on this subject. 

Sanders did get in some telling shots at Clinton’s acceptance of speaking fees from Goldman Sachs (though one wonders if the name of that firm inspires the same fury in his listeners as better known banks they deal with every day), and defended his oscillating position on guns pretty well. And even his response to the “bipartisanship” question — the Naderite position that both parties have been bought and sold — wasn’t that much less convincing than Clinton’s or O’Malley’s stale rap about reaching across party lines and forging the kind of coalitions that have become largely a distant memory. 

But Bernie’s plight was perhaps best captured by the moment observers are already calling one of his best in the debate, when he sharply replied to Andrea Mitchell’s out-of-context quote of his condemnation of Bill Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky scandal by saying:

I cannot walk down the street, Secretary Clinton knows that, without being told how much I have to attack Secretary Clinton.

That’s undoubtedly true. His core supporters want a civil war — for “the soul of the Democratic Party,” as the pundits love to say. But it’s doubtful the Democratic Party, and particularly the voters he most needs to expand his beachhead in nearly all-white states into more representative Donkey territory, wants its soul contested.