The Democratic Contest Is Getting Nasty

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Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Spar At Democratic Debate In Brooklyn
Thursday's debate was more of a shouting match.Photo: Justin Sullivan/2016 Getty Images

Okay, mercy! Make it stop already.

For months I remained relentlessly cheerful about the overall quality of the Democratic primary competition. The contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders offered such a bright and bracing contrast to all those professional wrestlers emerging from the RNC’s clown car. Hillary and Bernie spoke so nimbly of policy and differing approaches to implementing change. They both evinced competence, intelligence, respect, and even affection for one another. (I’m sick and tired of hearing about your emails, Hillary! Let’s move on from that time your campaign stole my data, Bernie!)

In fact, my biggest complaint, for lo those many months, was: not enough debating. Please let’s have more debates, I pleaded, and I was not alone. The DNC’s abbreviated schedule of debates, programmed on obscure holiday nights, was a shonde; our Democratic bright lights were being hidden under the party’s bushel.

Bernie was nudging Hillary left and pulling in impassioned young voters, Hillary was pushing Bernie on specifics; the challenge from him was disabusing her supporters of the lie that her candidacy was inevitable. Their conversation would extend into a long and salubrious campaign, one that would force Democrats to lay down infrastructure around the country and engage more voters in more states. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, plenty. Perhaps it’s related to the emergence of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz — as opposed to Jeb! Bush or Marco Rubio — as the Republican front-runners. That a reasonably well-watered houseplant would appear, to most voters, to be preferable to either of these two candidates diminishes our need to hear more from Hillary and Bernie, both of whom look like wizards next to their likeliest competition.

But more than that, it’s that a long and close campaign can’t stay polite and high-minded forever. Especially not when there’s a media maw to be fed. Resentments and hatred build; two very tired people, neither of them spring chickens, traverse the country, getting wearier, getting meaner.

And so the competition between these two has devolved: to dumb fights about tokens and Metrocard swipes, to spiraling fury over words like “unqualified” and “whore,” which are extra freighted when a woman is running, but which have also been received with the opposite of chill by Clinton backers on whom the art of subtle rebuke appears lost. And before you yell at me, @ImWithHerForeverAndEver2016, I am aware of the fact that she never called him unqualified and that was just in a headline. There’s been Clinton’s dismal AIPAC speech, her baffling remarks about Nancy Reagan and AIDS, which revealed either a terrible knowledge gap or real perfidy. There has been Sanders’s abysmal interview with the Daily News editorial board. And yes, @BerninUpForYourLove, I have read Mike Konczal’s defense of Sanders’s answer on breaking up the banks; I was persuaded by it! It was actually the rest of Bernie’s vague, defensive, platitudinous interview that worried me. (Bernie’s evasive response to a question about why he doesn’t support the Palestinian leadership’s attempt to use the International Criminal Court to litigate war crimes — “Look, why don’t I support a million things in the world?”— made me again consider the possibility that those who find Sanders’s stylistic approach novel or exotic may simply not know enough older Jewish men).

Recent weeks have included the damaging behavior of Bill Clinton, who managed to act like the Big Dog that he is by peeing all over the campaign cycle in his determination to double down on his own legacy regarding the crime bill and his failure to remember that this is not about him; it’s about another politician who’s worked hard to distance herself from the support she offered as his wife. On Wednesday, Bernie sent out a fundraising memo going after EMILY’s List, the organization that — while imperfect — has surely done more for women in American politics than any other organization, because he somehow hadn’t yet managed to distance himself from all the major women’s institutions by referring to them as part of the Establishment against which he’s mounting his presidential challenge.

Oh my god, make it stop.

But it isn’t stopping, because Thursday brought Democrats, including me, our fondest wish and dream: another debate!

And from the start it was clear that this whole civil, respectful race had just deteriorated into some kind of nerdy Punch & Judy show, in which everyone screamed at each other, and over each other (and over the moderators) about 501c4s and Dodd Frank.   

No, it was not all bad. Even though the crowd was bellowing with the vigor of their Republican brethren, Sanders and Clinton remained high-minded about the content of their debate, and managed to have some meaningful, if nasty, exchanges. On foreign policy, usually a weak spot, Sanders found a revelatory new groove, offering groundbreaking words about the value of Palestinian lives, and our moral responsibility to question Israeli leadership. His remarkable, electorally risky rhetoric was undercut somewhat by the fact that hours before the debate, Sanders had suspended Simone Zimmerman, the Jewish Outreach coordinator whose hiring had been announced just two days earlier, after reports that she had used vulgar language in reference to Benjamin Netanyahu. It was a move, in response to pressure from conservative pro-Israeli groups, that did not allay fears that as president, Sanders’s stated resolve to implement idealistic policy measures might wither quickly in the face of Republican opposition. Still, Bernie was really great on Palestine.

Meanwhile, in a discussion about guns, Clinton pussy-footed around her silly “per capita” line about guns pouring out of Vermont into New York (yep, @ItTakesAVillage92, I know it is technically correct; it is also lame), but did effectively lay into Sanders on his actually crappy stance on guns. Pointing to the fact that her opponent often laments the greed and recklessness of Wall Street, Clinton asked compellingly, “What about the greed and recklessness of gun manufacturers in America?”

Clinton also managed, almost two hours into this interminable thing, to bring up the concentrated attack on reproductive rights across America, a topic that has not been raised in any of the season’s debates so far, earning her a lot of enthusiastic applause and energetic engagement from Sanders on the topic before Dana Bash cut them off to talk some more about meaningless general-election polling.

But all this interesting stuff was hidden in two hours of yelling. Of “YUUGE” jokes and overcooked lines about “before there was Obamacare there was Hillarycare” and excuses about how Jane does the taxes, which makes them very inaccessible when really, guys, it’s been weeks; you can get someone to dig up copies of the tax returns. All that was good was buried beneath a sheen of rancor, culminating perhaps with Sanders circling around his campaign’s current strategic argument that Hillary’s lead in pledged delegates (and votes, and number of states won) is illegitimate because her victories were so decisive in southern states. “Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South,” said Bernie. “We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country … But you know what, we’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up.” Putting aside the fact that Clinton’s wins have also come in Massachusetts, Florida, and the Midwest, Bernie’s seeming scorn for voters in southern states, who broke for Clinton perhaps not out of conservatism, but because she has so far done a far better job of reaching black voters, was a low point. The diminishment of southern contests is the kind of veiled racist rhetoric that Bill Clinton deployed memorably in South Carolina in 2008, and which does not look any more attractive on Bernie — the guy whose campaign is centered on the premise that he plays cleaner and more progressive politics than his opponents.

And all this for what? A protracted contest is good, yes, but this circling of an ugly drain is not. This level of acrimony will not change anyone’s mind at this point. If you thought yesterday that Hillary Clinton’s Iraq vote and big money speeches to Wall Street and incremental approach to progress render her fight for the presidency a cynical exercise in corporatist identitarian politics, you think the same thing today, except probably more so. If you find Bernie primly hypocritical, his compromises on gun legislation disqualifying, and think it implausible that he’d have the wherewithal to implement a single piece of promised legislation, much less lead a revolution, you are likely even more irritated by him this morning than you were last weekend.

But the chances are, you don’t even fall into either of those camps. Chances are you are badly torn, maybe lukewarm on both, or perhaps have a slight gut preference for one, but will mostly just be happy to vote for either against whichever Republican toad finds his way to the ballot against them in November.

Between now and then of course, we have to select one. And since there’s no reason for either to drop out, I guess we’ll just keep wading through this foul swamp. But I wish it didn’t have to be so unpleasant; I wish we could all do better. Let’s make the American Democratic primary great again.