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Sanders sticks to one theme, Clinton sticks to Obama

The Democratic candidates kept their debate civil, especially compared to the food fights that break out during the GOP debates.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waving as they arrive on stage before Thursday's debate.
REUTERS/Jim Young

Thursday night — in Milwaukee and on PBS — Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tripped the light fantastic for two hours in the form of a televised debate.

As usual, they claimed to like and respect each other, and how are we to know how seriously to take that? (I assume not very, especially these days.)

But they kept it civil, especially compared to the food fights that regularly break out during the Republican debates. Perhaps it’s easier to pull that off when you are down to two contenders, as the Dems are, compared to the huge stage full of Republicans.

All was not sweetness, of course. Each Democratic candidate came with a couple of zingers that their opposition researchers had found. Sanders brought up the fact — and she didn’t deny it — that Clinton at one time pointed to Henry Kissinger as someone she admired, and who had mentored her. Sanders smeared her a bit by association with some of Kissinger’s baggage, especially the Indochina stuff.

Clinton waited to the very end, when it was almost too late for Sanders to respond, to bring up a list of unfriendly, or at least critical, things Sanders has said about President Obama. Sanders replied that at least he didn’t run against Obama, as Clinton did in 2008, which seemed a cheap shot. He did better in suggesting that there is nothing disloyal or depraved about a senator occasionally differing with or criticizing a president, even one from his own party.

Looking to South Carolina

The political analysts will tell us that Clinton was shrewdly hugging Obama — who has a high approval rating among Democrats, and who is also an African-American — just as the next primary looms in South Carolina, where blacks make up a huge chunk of Democrats. In 2008, more of half of those voting in the Democratic primary were African-American. In fact, Sanders also made several direct appeals to non-whites as well, enumerating some of the many indicators that the systems — law enforcement and the economic system, to mentioned two — are racist.

You won’t be shocked to learn that Sanders made the case that the economy is rigged in favor of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, and that the rigging is done by a government corrupted by donations from the wealthy. He said it in his opening statement, and I worried he would say it 20 more times (but in fact, it was more like five). Still, this is his theme, and one that so far has resonated well.

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Clinton took a not-so-subtle shot at Sanders on that score, beginning her closing statement with: “I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”

If, with a gun to my head, you made me pronounce on which candidate I think helped him/herself the most Thursday night, I would guess Clinton, mostly because this comes right after the drubbing she took in New Hampshire and she didn’t act the least bit rattled in Milwaukee.

Sanders, on the other hand, is suspected of being weak on foreign policy, where all modern presidential candidates must be strong. But he showed some depth on the subject, putting Clinton on the defensive as someone who is too drawn to siren song of “regime change.” And, of course, he brought up his vote against the Iraq War authorization, contrasted with Clinton’s “aye” vote. Personally, I don’t get tired of that one, and her “aye” is a big problem. Her now-familiar retort (which she used again Thursday night) that “I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016,” just ain’t working for me. But she’s in a hole on that one.

The Washington Post, as it has done with every debate this year, put out a helpful annotated transcript, and got this one up just 34 minutes after the debate ended. How the heck do they do that?