Bernie Sanders Dumped Momentum in the PBS Debate

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Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate In Milwaukee
Have you heard my views on Wall Street?Photo: Win McNamee/2016 Getty Images

If you listened to cable-news punditry in the immediate aftermath of the New Hampshire primary, Hillary Clinton’s campaign was on the brink of collapse, and minority-voter support was the thing that could save her. A lot of angry comments and counter-comments about minority voters’ interests quickly filled the airwaves and social-media space, concluding with some skirmishing over the Congressional Black Caucus PAC’s endorsement of Clinton today. With a Nevada caucus and South Carolina primary coming up in which African-American and Latino voters will play a major role, you’d figure that given any encouragement in tonight’s PBS-sponsored candidates’ debate, Sanders would go at Clinton hard on race issues. Instead, they largely repeated the talking points you heard in the last debate in the overwhelmingly white state of New Hampshire. 

Sanders was offered several opportunities to repeat the white-hot charges of some of his supporters that the Clinton administration was responsible for mass incarceration or the immiseration of African-Americans via welfare reform. He did not rise to the bait. And instead of suggesting that Barack Obama had disappointed his black and brown (and white) devotees by caving to Wall Street and the GOP opposition, as many of his New Hampshire voters pretty clearly believed, Sanders instead insisted he was the more faithful follower of Obama. This was a classic example of playing on his opponent’s ground, and since he could not follow Clinton’s passionate bear hug of the 44th president, he wound up giving her the initiative. Certainly it was odd for a candidate supposedly focused on expanding his electoral reach to spend a significant amount of time and passion during the debate harping on old-hippie preoccupations from the 1950s (the CIA coup to topple Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh) and 1960s–70s (Henry Kissinger’s crimes against Cambodia).

But while Sanders may have lost an opportunity to take the fight to Clinton on issues of importance to minority voters, it’s not clear that many votes were changed. The two candidates essentially stayed in their lanes and repeated their talking points, and are implicitly standing pat on their existing campaign strategies to carry the day in Nevada and South Carolina. There were a few minor notes in the debate that might matter down the road, including Sanders’s continued dodging of questions about the size of government he contemplated, and Clinton’s bobbing and weaving on Libya. There was an even bigger symbolic moment when Bernie cited people from a long-lost generation (FDR and Churchill) as his great inspirations, while Clinton went with the more recent and politically pointed Nelson Mandela (as compared to Abraham Lincoln in an earlier debate).  Anything Clinton can do to turn the perception of Sanders from the exciting and forward-thinking pied piper of youth into a cranky old socialist is worth its weight in media gold.

All in all, though, Sanders and Clinton retreated to their corners and are counting on their world-class campaigns to win the next crucial rounds.