As far as I can tell, the conventional wisdom formed quickly and overwhelmingly an hour after the conclusion of Tuesday night’s five-way debate among Democratic presidential candidates.
I’ve been around long enough to know that the conventional wisdom, especially when that CW is formed off first impressions, doesn’t always hold up. But I offer only caution about excessive certainty, not much disagreement with the main elements of the instant CW which had the following elements:
Former Sens. Jim Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island were both dead men walking even before last night and their fate was confirmed, according to the CW.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley was the only one among the lower-polling group who, it was thought, had some potential to become relevant with a great performance. The CW says he didn’t get that done.
Every card-carrying Commentariat member that I heard agreed that if Vice President Joe Biden was hoping for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to blow it so badly last night that he (Biden) would have to ride to the rescue, that didn’t happen. The big futurists mostly seemed convinced that the promise or threat of a late-start Biden candidacy was down to a fading glimmer.
Bernie Sanders’ line (“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails… Enough about the emails…”) was the official moment-that-will-be-remembered from this debate. The focus groups holding dials that measured the second-by-second reactions of ordinary Democrats to the debate on both CNN and Fox were Off The Charts when Sanders said what he said.
Top Sanders campaign official Tad Devine said on CNN that the line was not planned, but I’ll remain skeptical on that. The instant analyzers seemed to think it was a great moment for both Sanders and Clinton, although if the above crumbs of Conventional Wisdom are correct — and with O’Malley failing to break through and Biden unable to get in, we are now down to a two-person field — it’s a little hard to see how anything can really be that great for both Sanders and Clinton.
The raves about Clinton’s performance were less about anything she said and more about how she seemed. “At ease,” “comfortable,” and she seemed to avoid gaffes. Her best one-liner, according to the analysts (and not including Sanders’ line above, which was widely hailed as a great gift to Clinton) was about one of her weak spots — her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.
Chafee voted against the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Sanders, who was in the House at the time, not only voted against the 2002 authorization but last night called the decision to attack and invade Iraq “the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.” Webb, although he wasn’t in a position to vote on it, publicly expressed skepticism in a prescient Washington Post op-ed piece.
Clinton’s vote for the war, contrasted to Barack Obama’s public opposition to it, was a key reason she lost the Democratic nomination in 2008 and she had not, until recently, acknowledged that the vote had been an error. But when Chafee was roughing her up over it last night, Clinton came up with this, almost-certainly-planned riposte about whether she could be trusted as commander-in-chief after that vote:
“Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times, with then-Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State. He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.”
That one elicited an ovation, although the precise logic is a little strained.
Fire and oratorical flair
Her other big moment, in which she displayed more fire and oratorical flair than we usually see from Clinton, occurred when advocating for a federal requirement that all employers provide paid leave to mothers to care for sick children. CNN’s Dana Bash, who had asked the original question, interjected that “even many people who agree with you might say, ‘Look, this is very hard to do, especially in today’s day and age.’ There are so many people who say, ‘Really? Another government program? Is that what you’re proposing? And at the expense of taxpayer money?’”
“Well, look, you know, when people say that — it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave. You can’t provide health care.’ They don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it.
“You know, we can do these things. We should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that,’ except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it, because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done.”
Sanders’ main point, last night and ever since he got into the race and really for years before that, was the maldistribution of wealth and power in America. Yes, he calls himself a “democratic socialist,” and he isn’t running away from the term. The CW was and remains that there’s only so close a self-styled socialist can get to the presidential nomination of one of America’s major parties. Still, while he doesn’t shrink from the “s” word, he seized every opportunity to steer from the questions he was asked last night to answers about his main topic.
For example, when the chief moderator, Anderson Cooper of CNN, challenged Sanders to explain how anyone who calls himself a socialist could possibly be elected president of the United States, Sanders replied:
“Well, we’re gonna win because first, we’re gonna explain what democratic socialism is about.
“And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country own almost 90 percent — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.
“That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.”
Note: When Sanders says “every other country on Earth,” he actually is referring to the developed world.
When Cooper asked whether Sanders considered himself any kind of capitalist, he replied: “Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t. I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.”
When the topic was climate change, Sanders said: “Let me also tell you that nothing is gonna happen unless we are prepared to deal with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change…”
Wall Street bailout
Sanders also voted against the humongous Wall Street bailout of 2008, a vote that occurred as members of Congress were told that U.S. economy was possibly days away from collapse. The bailout passed anyway but Cooper brought up this vote to ask: As president, would you stand by your principles if it risked the country’s financial stability? Sanders replied:
“I remember that meeting very well. I remember it like it was yesterday. [Treasury Secretary] Hank Paulson and [Federal Reserve Chair Ben] Bernanke came in, and they say, ‘Guys, the economy is going to collapse because Wall Street is going under. It’s gonna take the economy down with them.’
“And you know what I said to Hank Paulson? I said, ‘Hank, your guys — you come from Goldman Sachs. Your millionaire and billionaire friends caused this problem. How about your millionaire and billionaire friends paying for the bailout, not working families in this country?”
“So to answer your question, no, I would not have let the economy collapse. But it was wrong to ask the middle class to bail out Wall Street. And by the way, I want Wall Street now to help kids in this country go to college, public colleges and universities, free with a Wall Street speculation tax.”
And just one more example. Sanders: “In my view, Secretary Clinton,… Congress does not regulate Wall Street. Wall Street regulates Congress.”
Over on Fox, Frank Luntz was running a focus group, all of whose members were Democrats. According to him, during the debate there was a big shift, from a majority that favored Clinton to a bigger majority that favored Sanders.
O’Malley’s closing comment
Although O’Malley probably didn’t change the race much, I thought he had the best closing statement, at least for an audience of Democrats — and perhaps some non-Democrats — who have been stunned and horrified by the quality of the discussion in the Republican debates so far. Here’s what O’Malley said:
“I am very, very grateful to have been able to be on this stage with this distinguished group of candidates tonight. And what you heard tonight, Anderson, was a very, very — and all of you watching at home — was a very, very different debate than from the sort of debate you heard from the two presidential Republican debates.
“On this stage, you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women, you didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new American immigrants, you didn’t hear anyone speak ill of another American because of their religious belief.
“What you heard instead on this stage tonight was an honest search for the answers that will move our country forward, to move us to a 100 percent clean electric energy grid by 2050, to take the actions that we have always taken as Americans so that we can actually attack injustice in our country, employ more of our people, rebuild our cities and towns, educate our children at higher and better levels, and include more of our people in the economic, social, and political life of our country.
“I truly believe that we are standing on the threshold of a new era of American progress. Unless you’ve become discouraged about our gridlock in Congress, talk to our young people under 30, because you’ll never find among them people that want to bash immigrants or people that want to deny rights to gay couples.
“That tells me we are moving to a more connected, generous, and compassionate place, and we need to speak to the goodness within our country.”
This was the first debate of the Democratic field. If all goes according to plan, there will be five more before the nomination contest is over. It’s possible, assuming the new Conventional Wisdom is correct, that many of them will be one-one debates between Sanders and Clinton.
The Washington Post, by the way, produced a cool instant annotated transcript of last night’s debate, with quickie fact-checks and other commentary embedded.