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Watching Clinton and Sanders debate is a thankless task — but sometimes illuminating

I didn’t think there was anything they could say that I hadn’t heard before. But I was wrong.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton shaking hands before the start of the Univision News and Washington Post debate in Kendall, Fla., on Wednesday night.
REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

This is just how devoted I am to the thankless task of informing the electorate: I watched the Univision/Facebook/Washington Post-sponsored debate Wednesday night between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I didn’t think there was anything they could say that I hadn’t heard before. But I was wrong.

I didn’t know before Wednesday night that neither of these candidates favors deporting any immigrants, although they entered the U.S. illegally, unless they have broken further laws since they arrived or are plotting to harm Americans. In fact, they both favor a “path to citizenship” for them all.

That’s pretty much a proposal of the full Republican nightmare of amnesty plus citizenship, which is not only the exact opposite of the position of the leader in the race for the Republican nomination, but is a substantial break with the sainted Barack Obama, who has presided over the deportation more than two million undocumented immigrants, many of whom broke no law other than having moved to the United States without permission.

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So there’s that.

As you have figured out by now, when the Republicans debate, the candidates supply all the rudeness, whereas Clinton and Sanders cling — at least on the surface — to an admirable civility that by this point in the campaign probably masks bilateral smoldering hatred.

Blunt questions

But Wednesday night, the moderators threw courtesy out the window and asked a series of defensible but blunt questions that bordered on rude.

They asked Clinton why polls show Americans don’t consider her honest or trustworthy. (Her answer, which I’ll append below, was so devoid of substance — suggesting that she takes responsibility for the perception, even though there is no basis for the perception — that it was sort of an illustration of the problem, rather than a rebuttal of an unfair charge.)

They asked her if she would leave the race if she gets indicted. (She took offense at that one and refused to dignify it with a response.)

And they invited Sanders to repeat his demand that she release the transcript of the private and highly compensated talks she gave to Wall Street firms. He, as usual, mocked her usual reply that she will release the transcript when all candidates do, adding that he had already released all such transcripts because none exist because he gave no such private talks to Wall Streeters.

Let me just say this bluntly: Clinton’s usual excuse that she won’t release the transcripts because other (unnamed) candidates have not done so (and she doesn’t believe she should be unfairly singled out for transcript-releasing demands) is a tacit admission that there is something embarrassing (or worse) in the transcripts. And it suggests that the obvious political damage engendered by refusing to release must be a lesser theat to her candidacy than the political damage of what she said to the Wall Streeters being known. And it leaves the nature of that damage up to our imaginations.

Sanders on Cuba

The moderators also bushwhacked Sanders with an ancient video of him speaking favorably of the benefits that the Castro government had brought to Cuba. Here’s what Sanders said, in the 1960s video:

SANDERS: You may recall way back in, when was it, 1961, they invaded Cuba, and everybody was totally convinced that Castro was the worst guy in the world. All the Cuban people were going to rise up in rebellion against Fidel Castro. They forgot that he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed their society.

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Sanders weaseled his way out this one, suggesting that his remarks were about his opposition to the U.S. policy of overthrowing (or trying to overthrow) leftist Latin American governments (“regime change”) in Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile and Venezuela. By my lights, that’s a solid critique that’s become more widely accepted over the decades. But if you look at the quote from the old interview, it is about the many benefits the Cuban people enjoyed under Castroism. There’s truth to that, too, but it’s a much more controversial statement than the one he pretended to defend.

Anyway, as I trudged up from the TV room to my desk to file this report, I found that New York Times columnist Gail Collins had filed an instant reaction that included this fabulous paragraph:

“This was Wednesday’s Democratic debate — the second one in a week, not counting the back-to-back town halls in between. People, do you remember when we used to complain that there weren’t going to be enough debates? Ah yes, long ago. Dinosaurs roamed the earth and Marco Rubio was a hot ticket.”

My sentiments exactly. Collins’ full report is here.

The Washington Post’s usual instantly annotated full transcript of the debate is here.

Trusting Clinton

And here’s the promised verbatim Clinton reply to the question of why Americans don’t trust her:

Question from the Washington Post’s KAREN TUMULTY: Secretary Clinton, a Washington Post poll just yesterday found that only 37 percent of Americans consider you honest and trustworthy. Now, when you’ve been asked about this in the past, you have said that this is the result of many, many years of Republican attacks upon you. But Americans have also had 25 — more than that — years to get to know you for themselves. Is there anything in your own actions and the decisions that you yourself have made that would foster this kind of mistrust?

CLINTON: Well, first Karen, obviously it’s painful for me to hear that. And I do take responsibility. When you’re in public life, even if you believe that it’s not an opinion that you think is fair or founded, you do have to take responsibility. And I do.

And I also have, you know, very much committed to the best of my ability my energies and efforts to helping people. That’s something that I care deeply about. And I will continue to do that, to demonstrate by my past actions and my present levels of commitment and plans that people can count on me.

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That is certainly what happened to me in New York, where people got to know me. They saw me in action. And they did.

Look, I have said before and it won’t surprise anybody to hear me say it, this is not easy for me. It’s not easy to do what I think is right, to help people, to even the odds, to hear a story like the woman’s story we just heard. And to know that I can make a difference and I want to in every way possible.

I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama. So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people’s lives, and hope that people see that I’m fighting for them and that I can improve conditions economically and other ways that will benefit them and their families.