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A Debate Between a Hedgehog and a Fox

Bernie Sanders doggedly pursued his one big idea about reforming American politics, while Hillary Clinton detailed her many proposals for change.

Clinton and Sanders debate on January 18, 2016. David Goldman / AP

With the New Hampshire primaries just days away, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met on a debate stage in Durham on Thursday. In their first one-on-one matchup, the duo seemed determined to illustrate Archilochus’s classic binary between the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them.

That divide was clear from their opening statements, with Sanders immediately jumping to his familiar mantra about a rigged economy and a corrupt campaign-finance scheme. Clinton’s answer was not so laser focused, discussing a general need for the nation to “live up to our values in the 21st century,” and checking off not just the economy, but racism, sexism, and more. This split is not new, of course, but with Martin O’Malley off the stage and out of the race, and the Democratic contest tighter than ever, the division has never been so clear. It led to an unusually interesting debate, with the two candidates frequently addressing each other directly and delving into detail.

At times, it was clear why Sanders’s hedgehog approach has been so popular with many Democrats—the ones who nearly delivered him an upset win in the Iowa caucuses, and the ones in New Hampshire who favor him by some 20 points in polls. That was especially true as they squabbled over who is a true progressive and as Clinton tried to defend her highly remunerative speeches to Goldman Sachs. But at other times, it seemed more like a limitation. Quizzed on foreign policy, Sanders seemed at sea about events overseas.

The first segment of the debate focused largely on labels, picking up on an argument that has raged over the last few days over who is a progressive and who is not. Sanders has pointed out, and did again on Thursday, that Clinton identified herself as a “moderate” last fall; he said that one can be a moderate or a progressive, but not both. “What we have got to do is wage a political revolution.” Clinton rejected that as simplistic, presenting herself as “a progressive who gets thing done” and suggesting Sanders would not. The two also fielded questions about Sanders’s recent registration as a Democrat and which of them is an outsider.

There are two ways to see the fight over progressivism. On one level, it’s a rather frivolous piece of identity politics. Who cares what they call themselves? But for Sanders, it’s a way to show that Clinton says different things to different audiences. Whatever else you care to say about Sanders, he hasn’t changed his story for decades. The conversation also forces Clinton into silly places, such as insisting that she’s not part of the establishment. Does any American really believe that? But Clinton, playing aggressively, got in a couple good licks at Sanders, arguing that his definition of a progressive would rule out Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and even Paul Wellstone, and adding “I don't think it was progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times.”

More clearly substantive was a fight over the role of Wall Street in American politics. Clinton botched a question Wednesday about a series of highly remunerative speeches she delivered to Goldman Sachs, and she again struggled with it Thursday. The former secretary of state noted that she gave many speeches to various organizations. But of course, that’s beside the point: Sanders’s objection isn’t to Clinton making money, but to Clinton taking payments from big banks. He described Wall Street as based on “fraud” Thursday and noted the lack of prosecutions of financiers after the 2008 crash. Clinton still hasn’t crafted a good answer to criticism of her ties to finance—a pretty good sign that there isn’t a good answer to be had. (Later, moderator Chuck Todd asked Clinton if she would release transcripts of all the speeches she gave; her answer, “I’ll look into it,” was neither inspiring nor convincing.)

The Wall Street discussion produced the single most-heated moment of the debate, when Clinton lashed out at Sanders. She notes that he accuses politicians of being influenced by money, but never specifically names her. "I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out,” Clinton said. The line came in the midst of a loud back-and-forth between the candidates, and elicited both cheers and boos. She also said she had never changed a vote because of a campaign contribution—but that’s not the way systemic corruption works. Sanders, the hedgehog, gets that; Clinton, the fox, sees so many shades of gray that the picture gets fuzzy.

The debate next turned to foreign policy. On many specifics, both candidates agree. For example, both think the U.S. should be working against ISIS, and both oppose sending ground troops to do it. Sanders stressed that the United States should avoid foreign entanglements. Clinton reeled off a list of policy variables with elan. Sanders brought up his vote against the war in Iraq, but asked about the relative menace of North Korea, Russia, and Iran, he quickly proved out of his depth, meandering and making questionable assertions. (Multiple dictators in North Korea?) Clinton can speak with much deeper knowledge on foreign policy, but the fact remains that she erred in voting for the war in Iraq, as Sanders was happy to remind viewers. “A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS,” she said Thursday—surely true, but voters might reasonably question her judgment about ISIS given her record. In one sharp exchange, Clinton delivered a detailed critique of Sanders’s suggestion that the U.S normalize relations with Iran; Sanders accused her of making the same mistake she’d made in 2008, when she called Obama naïve for wanting to negotiate with Iran about nuclear weapons.

Both candidates delivered strong performances, and both drove into a couple of potholes. Given what a non-factor Martin O’Malley had been in the previous debates, it’s surprising how different this debate felt. But Clinton had deftly played herself against Sanders and O’Malley as a pair time and again, and removing O’Malley deprived her of the chance to do that. Sanders’s Manichaean perspective on campaign finance and the economy is simple and appeals to many Americans, and it makes it hard for Clinton to defend her record. The heavy emphasis on just a few issues for most of the debate plays into Sanders’s hedgehog strengths. Moreover, because Sanders has the momentum, Clinton was forced to attack him. How voters respond to that remains to be seen, while her continued insistence that Sanders would dismantle Obamacare still doesn’t make sense.

Sanders entered with momentum and did nothing to lose it, meaning he probably gains more from the debate—but it’s hard to make a case that Clinton lost the debate. The big winner from the night might be the American people: After months of overcrowded debates, the chance to see just two serious presidential candidates engage each other was a valuable and refreshing change of pace.

David Graham


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That was a good debate, but I don't see how it moves a lot of Democratic voters. Bernie's idealistic legions aren't going to be swayed by Hillary's appeals to pragmatism. Hillary's supporters are going to continue to see her as out of his league. But it was a good debate because voters got a very substantive and wide-ranging contrast between the candidates' differing appeals

I'm stunned that we've now had five Democratic debates and still haven't had a question about reproductive rights, especially with a major Supreme Court case looming and dozens of state regulations being passed each year.

Remember when Larry Lessig was worried that without him in the debates there wouldn't be enough attention to money in politics?

The candidate that will gain from this zero-sum debate—the winner—will turn on something of an x-factor: did the undecided Democrats watching prefer Hillary Clinton’s direct, aggressive attacks on Bernie Sanders, most of them early in the night? Or did they prefer Sanders’ refusal to engage in any direct attacks? I thought Clinton was unfair. I know that many will differ. And I don’t have a good enough sense of the undecided Democratic electorate to guess at who benefitted tonight.

Sanders: "I do believe we need a political revolution where millions of people stand up and say loudly and clearly that our country belongs to all of us and not just a handful of wealthy campaign contributors"

Sanders takes a page out of Marco Rubio's bio-heavy playbook in this closing statement: He mentions how his dad immigrated to the U.S. from Poland with no money, and how surprised he'd be to see his son on the stage.

Clinton's closing statement asks Dems to bring "both your heart and your head" to vote. Says she's been "moved with my heart" to work to make America better, but also "we've got to put our heads together" to solve problems. This is a reference to the idea that many Democratic voters' heads are telling to vote Clinton while their hearts tell them to vote Sanders—something I've heard from a lot of Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"On our worst days, I think we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate,” Sanders said. Doesn’t Chris Christie say that at ​every debate about the Republican slate versus Hillary Clinton?

Clinton declines to say she'd put Sanders on the ticket, but says she'd consult him if she's elected.

Hillary 2016: Let’s make the next four years a constant dialogue.

Defending her record as a manager, Clinton invokes the praise of one of her predecessors as secretary of state. It’s not every day you hear a candidate name-check Henry Kissinger at a Democratic debate.

Clinton says she would neither create nor destroy any department in the federal government—the opposite, of course, of Republican candidates who oppose the EPA and other agencies. Instead, she says she'll focus on reform.

It sounds good on the campaign trail, but Sanders' demand that prospective Supreme Court nominees pledge to deliver a case's outcome before hearing it is a judicial-ethics nightmare. (He'd also have zero way to enforce this if they didn't.)

A top to bottom review: more popular with the A agencies or the Z agencies?

"You're not going to accomplish what has to be done" for families and the middle class, Sanders says, "unless there is campaign-finance reform."

What is it with ranking lists of three items? This is a presidential campaign, not a standardized test. Clinton rejects the premise of the question entirely, refusing to rank immigration, gun reform, and climate change, promising instead to do it all. That’s compelling, but an odd point coming from a candidate who’s relentlessly attacked her rival for a lack of realism in what he can get through Congress.

I think part of the moderator’s point—that by eschewing trade agreements, Sanders runs the risk of letting China set the tone globally through its own pacts—was interesting, and not particularly addressed in his response.

One factor that hasn’t been discussed about trade with China is the role that it plays in fostering that country’s peaceful rise, even if it comes at an economic cost to the United States. Maybe it’s worth that cost.

This Flint question is a good example of an "important issue" that's just an excuse for the candidates to try to out-passion each other in agreement

Maddow brings up the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Sanders and Clinton will appear at a debate there on March 6, just before the state's primary. The Clinton campaign pushed to schedule a debate in Flint to "keep the focus" on the city.

Hillary strikes a middle ground you don't hear very often by differentiating between the federal and state death-penalty system. It's one of the clearest times we see her background as a lawyer. In response, Bernie Sanders takes the philosophical, abolitionist approach: The state shouldn't be responsible for killing. The latest polls show that both Americans and Democrats are closer to Clinton's position, but the trend is moving towards Sanders’s.

Hillary Clinton wasn’t only in favor of the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh after “a very thorough trial”—she also favored the drone killing of an American citizen with no trial at all.

If I were conspiratorially inclined, I’d think the moderators were working against you, Molly. We get a question on the death penalty, and instantly, we see a stark disagreement. Clinton defends its use in response to heinous crimes. “I just don’t want to see government be part of killing,” Sanders replies.

I rise to defend process questions! there's not very much disagreement on those big issues, Yoni, and the moderators are trying to get them knocked off their talking points.

The moderators ask about an allegation that the Sanders campaign claimed a newspaper endorsement it didn't actually have. No questions yet tonight on climate change. On abortion. On infrastructure. On taxes. On surveillance. On criminal-justice reform. Every time the moderators turn to substantive issues, the two candidates go at it hammer-and-tongs, so why are the moderators trying to gin up fights over minor controversies?

Just as he did in the first debate, Bernie Sanders holds back from engaging in the email controversy. “I will not politicize it,” he says.

Clinton says she's "100 percent confident" that nothing will come of the FBI investigation into her email. But what else is she going to say? The fact that some Republican cabinet secretaries also used private email, as Clinton notes, doesn't strike me as especially exculpatory. That just means both parties have engaged in questionable practices, right?

I’m glad Hillary Clinton has come around to the position that the classification process is an absurdity. Perhaps Rachel Maddow should ask her about Chelsea Manning.

I confess I have no idea whether Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton would be the stronger general-election candidate. But that’s partly because I don’t entirely agree that Clinton has been “vetted,” insofar as the possibility of something new and damaging coming from her email server seems plausible.

"I personally am thrilled" by the numbers of young people flocking to Sanders' campaign,  Clinton says. "Thrilled" might be a bit too strong a word.

Clinton takes note of the "young people” backing Sanders. Clinton is trailing behind Sanders in millennial support by 70 points, according the Iowa entrance poll. As Ronald Brownstein noted, she’s capable of surviving this in the primary, but it may very well resurface as a challenge should she win the Democratic nomination.

Bernie Sanders had to know he was getting the “Are you electable?" question. His answer: “Democrats win when there is a big voter turnout.” He makes the case that he can get voters out better than Hillary Clinton.

I'm amazed that Sanders so readily endorsed the caucus process, which heavily disadvantages elderly, disabled, and working-class voters. Then again, I'm amazed we still have caucuses at all.

Rachel Maddow: Are you another George McGovern?

I'm surprised the moderators didn't start with this question: Sanders, are the Iowa caucuses results accurate, or do you agree with a Des Moines Register editorial that said they should be reevaluated? Sanders doesn't seem to take the issue so seriously. At the end of the day, he says, "it'll break roughly even." And: "People are blowing this up out of proportion."

Given that Martin O’Malley is a whole person, it’s striking how little is missing from this debate due to his absence.

I think the answer is yes, Yoni. Sanders's single-minded focus on economic inequality for his whole career is what gives him so much credibility in this campaign. But it's also his Achilles' heel.

In the debate flashcard sets that Cliff’s Notes sells, the other side of the “North Korea” flashcard says, “lean on China."

Asked to rank the threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea, Sanders flails. He offers a rambling set of thoughts on North Korea, throwing in a few jabs at Putin. It’s baffling that a man as smart as Bernie Sanders has gotten this far into his campaign with gaining greater fluency with the core foreign-policy challenges of the contemporary world. Is it simply a lack of interest in non-economic policy issues?

Sanders paints himself like Obama in 2008. He points out that Clinton called Obama naive then, and suggests she's treating him the same way now—but as he notes, Obama's strategy succeeded in achieving an agreement with Iran. (Obviously, verdicts on the quality of that deal differ widely.)

Is this the first substantive, forward-looking disagreement they've had on foreign policy? Sanders favors normalizing relations with Iran. Clinton reels off a list of the things that Iran does that she says justify continued distance from Tehran. She shines in this case: She can name various Iranian infractions off the top of her head, in a way that Sanders cannot.

...and we’re back to “ready on Day One.” It’s not argument that worked for her in 2008, and seems unlikely to fare better this time around. Clinton has the unfortunate habit of falling back on her favorite lines in fierce exchanges, instead of trying to force Sanders off of his.

Hillary Clinton, a few minutes after complaining about artful smears: “Questions have been raised, and questions have to be answered."

Clinton keeps on citing all the experts who agree with her, and all the experience she’s accrued through the years—a decidedly odd defense against a man who’s succeeded by going to war with the establishment. Why doesn’t she press Sanders for specifics instead, when he waves his hands and talks about coalitions and summoning Muslim armies?

It's interesting that Sanders talks a great deal about the need to build coalitions, but he seldom offers any idea how would be in those coalitions or how he'd go about building them.

Bernie Sanders: “One can’t predict the future.” That may be my favorite assertion from any of the presidential debates. Zombie Hayek is smiling a ghastly grin.

Sanders has had the same answer on ISIS all along: "Muslim troops" must do the fighting against ISIS. But that answer still doesn't make any sense. "Islam" isn't a country; it can't deploy divisions. Who would these troops be? Who would command them? Arabs? Persians? Sunnis? Shiites?

Sanders is asked what he'd do with potentially 10,000 troops left in Afghanistan once President Obama leaves office. He doesn't answer the question, saying he opposes getting involved in "perpetual war."

The conversation is proceeding as if the candidates are basically in agreement on Syria. But unless I missed a shift, only one of them believes in the necessity of regime change in that country.

It's ironic that national security is seen as Hillary's strength in the Democratic primary—and her biggest vulnerability in the general election.

A heartening promise from Hillary Clinton: We will not send combat troops back to Iraq or Syria. Then again, maybe they’re already there.

The debate shifts to foreign policy. Tonight, as in past encounters, the depth and breadth of Clinton’s knowledge is on clear display; it’s a striking contrast with Sanders. But her willingness to engage in conflicts abroad sets her at odds with many Democratic voters, and she struggles to square the circle. She announces she opposes sending combat troops to Iraq and Syria, but supports deploying special forces. Come again?

Sanders asks, rhetorically, if he can work with corporations—and doesn't seem to answer the question. Some do good work, he says, but "many" have "turned their backs on the American worker.”

Clinton offers the first mention of Turing Pharmaceuticals of the evening. The company was bound to come up: Earlier today, its former CEO Martin Shkreli—a.k.a. the bad boy of pharma—appeared in front of Congress. The company jacked up the price of a drug used by people with HIV to much public criticism.

Wall Street is a big, complicated system with a lot of non-fraud. But part of the business model, at least as it existed very recently, is fairly described as fraud. At least that sounds fair to me when I reflect on combining high-risk mortgages with a few more solid assets in “traunches” in order to game the ratings agencies.

"I think it’s a broader target list than Wall Street," Clinton says. I wonder how this sort of militancy works for her. She can't out-radical Sanders. Who's on her list?

We’re almost an hour into the debate and it’s primarily been focused on two points: credentials and Wall Street. That’s allowing the candidates the opportunity to recite points from their stump speeches.

“In my view,” says Sanders, “the business model of Wall Street is fraud. I believe that corruption is rampant.” He cites the string of Wall Street settlements even within a weak regulatory system, and warns that there will be future bailouts unless they’re broken up. Sanders and Clinton are talking past each other, but there’s a real disagreement here. Sanders doesn’t trust any institution that gets too big, and doesn’t believe that any amount of regulation can rein them in. Clinton places her faith in the ability of government bureaucracy to tame the excesses of capitalism and harness its strengths.

And there it is: The reference to Martin Shkreli's Turing Pharmaceuticals.

Clinton says, "Look at my record." But why won't she let us look at her speeches?

Hillary Clinton refuses to commit to releasing the transcripts of her speeches. “I’ll look into it.”

Clinton invokes Paul Krugman and Barney Frank in support of her financial-reform plan; Sanders says, “the American people can judge,” and lays out his critique of having a half-dozen financial institutions with inordinate power.

Bernie Sanders calls Teddy Roosevelt a good Republican. If he were alive today, I imagine that he and John McCain would be running the Bull Moose Party by day and reading Rudyard Kipling poems to one another by night.

Sanders is showing very clearly why speaking to Goldman Sachs looks different to many people from speaking to the Girl Scouts: The Girl Scouts weren't involved in an economic meltdown, and there's no sense that girl scouts got away with something that ordinary people can't.

When a candidate with the best communications staff money can buy keeps having trouble answering the same question, that's a good sign that there is no good answer. (See also: Jeb Bush on Iraq.)

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein complained earlier this week about Sanders’s attacks on the bank, and on him. “To personalize it, it has potential to be a dangerous moment. Not just for Wall Street ... but for anybody who is a little bit out of line.” The Sanders campaign was no doubt delighted; Blankfein is unlikely to be much happier tonight.

Clinton botched a question about her speeches to Goldman Sachs last night, and she still is struggling with it. Sure, she spoke to Wall Street firms, but she also spoke to other groups. (But that's not what people object to.) Further, she adds: "I went to Wall Street before the crash. I said, you're going to wreck the economy with these shenanigans." But that doesn't really answer the question either. She still took the money for the speeches.

I’m not sure how rattling off the long list of groups from which she accepted cash in exchange for speaking appearances is going to help Clinton very much here. That she took money from many groups in addition to Goldman Sachs rather serves to reinforce Sanders’s point than to undermine it.

I always get a bit of cognitive dissonance hearing Bernie tout his fundraising at the same time as he slams Clinton's big money. I get that it's grassroots rather than corporate. But he seems like a living, breathing example of how a good message that resonates with regular people can beat big money in politics.

Hillary Clinton is very effectively exploiting the fact that Sanders is reluctant to taint the Democratic nominee with something he believes deep down: that the Wall Street dollars she has received will certainly have undue influence on the actions that she’ll take if she ascends to the White House. And of course they will. Who do you think Goldman Sachs would have an easier time getting on the phone, President Clinton or President Sanders?

"Go to YouTube today. Look up 'Greenspan Sanders.'" This is amazing, Ron Paul-quality stuff.

Clinton: "I’m not impugning your motive. People make mistakes."

Take notice, Democrats. The position that Hillary Clinton just staked out is as follows: if a candidate takes millions of dollars from Wall Street banks, or Pharma, or whatever, it is a smear to suggest that they’ll be influenced by those dollars.

Hillary's elaborate attempt to insist campaign contributions don't have any effect on her reminds me of when, in 2007, she responded to Obama criticizing her closeness to lobbyists by saying they "represent real Americans."

After Clinton goes on the attack against him, Sanders pivots and starts attacking Republicans, the Koch Brothers, Big Pharma, you name it. Clinton notes that she has been attacked by special interests and had money spent against her, but of course that's not the point at all.

When Clinton charges Sanders with an “artful smear,” she has a point. He repeatedly accuses her, and other politicians, of pocketing money from big donors; he argues that the money flowing into the system has kept needed reforms from being passed; but Sanders never comes out and directly accuses Clinton of being bought. He walks up to the edge, and then leaves his audiences to make that tiny leap on their own.

This is one of the most disingenuous attacks I have ever seen in a debate. And I’ve been watching Donald Trump all season!

Clinton is really hitting hard on Sanders for saying he would run a positive campaign. Her campaign has been using this for weeks, which I find sort of baffling: How persuasive is it to talk about process questions like this? Moreover, why are we still talking about labels, as we near the 30-minute mark?

Clinton: “I think it’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks, and let’s talk about the issues.”

Hillary Clinton garners enthusiastic cheers for pointing to the improbability of a woman running for president being labeled part of “the establishment.” But improbable though it is, it’s nevertheless true—Clinton has overwhelming support from the party apparatus, from donors, and from the institutions usually characterized as comprising the establishment.

Does anyone really believe that Hillary Clinton is not the establishment?

Hillary Clinton is trotting out her endorsements, but doesn’t mention one reason she has gained so many of them: Some Democrats fear that she’ll be vindictive if she wins, if they weren’t with her. Bernie Sanders responds: "She has almost the entire establishment behind her."

Sanders's campaign points out that independents came out to the Iowa Democratic caucuses in record numbers, according to entrance polls

Once again, Sanders asserts that he doesn't have a super PAC, as evidence that he's running a purer, voter-driven campaign. And while it's true he doesn't want one, some loyal supporters have already established committees to support his candidacy.

Attracting independents in the NH primary is a major plank of Sanders's strategy. His status as a non-Democrats is a big part of his appeal, his campaign believes.

Well, they’ve now agreed to stop arguing about the definition of progressive — and Sanders immediately hit Clinton on fundraising.

This is an awfully semantic debate so far: Who's a progressive? Who's a moderate? Who's a Democrat? Who's an independent? It'd be nice to move on to some substance.

I’m bemused watching these two candidates try to define progressivism—a term originally used to describe an era at the turn of the twentieth century. As the eminent historian Daniel Rodgers argues, there never was a single progressivism, or a coherent progressive movement. Back in the Progressive Era, there were many progressivisms, their advocates fighting fiercely against each other on some issues, even as they collaborated on others. And its contemporary heirs are selective about which parts of that complicated legacy they embrace—the term is invoked today, it’s not usually used to mean, for example, eugenics. Who’s the real progressive? It’s a question that’s been debated for as long as there’ve been progressives.

This isn't a great answer for Clinton, though. He accuses her of having described herself as a moderate or a progressive depending on the venue, and she points out that she's described her self as progressive in addition to the time she described herself as moderate

So far Sanders is surprisingly on the back foot, given that he entered with momentum. But as Conor says, Clinton is more willing to attack—and the questions from moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow have so far been helpful to Clinton.

So far, Hillary Clinton is much more willing to attack her opponent in this debate. And Bernie Sanders continues to focus on his policy agenda rather than his opponent, with his anger directed at the status quo. Can he win if he refuses to attack in kind? I wonder how Democratic voters feel about the debate so far.

Rachel Maddow asks Sanders what his definition of progressive is, and while he says it is not "radical," it appears to be: He argues that to be a progressive, one must "wage a political revolution."

"I am a progressive who gets thing done," Clinton says. She's really hitting hard on the "progress" part of this. And she notes that Sanders' definition of "progressive" could exclude Barack Obama, Joe Biden, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, "and even the late Senator Paul Wellstone," the lefty icon.  Besides, she adds, "I don't think it was progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times."

Hillary Clinton says that Bernie Sanders will plunge us back into “a contentious debate” on health care, as if there is any scenario where health-care policy isn’t contentious for the next four years.

Clinton keeps stressing how complicated it is to get things done; Sanders keeps identifying villains—the pharmaceutical industry, big corporations, a system that doesn’t work for 29 million—and insisting that more needs to be accomplished. Clinton may be winning on policy points, but Sanders’s rhetoric is plainly appealing to many voters.

One problem for Clinton in this health-care discussion is that arguing over the "scoring" of policy proposals by economists is tough to do on a debate stage.

Sanders rejects Clinton's premise that his health-care dreams won't ever come to fruition: "Every major country on Earth ... has managed to provide health care to all people as a right and they are spending significantly less per capita than we are."

Sanders: "I haven't quite run for president before." It's a good laugh line—as everyone except Sanders seems to realize. He stands, impatiently, with his mouth open, waiting for the chuckles to die down.

The opening question touches on progressivism. The term has been a point of contention between Sanders and Clinton, paving the way for a war of words between the two candidates this week. The Vermont senator accused Clinton of being progressive “some days.” But Clinton has defended her right to don the label, saying she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done” — a tone she’s also taking tonight. As my colleague Clare Foran has noted, the bigger question at the center of the spat is whether constraining the meaning does any good. Politics requires compromise and should Sanders continue to limit the term’s reach it may hinder him moving forward.

Hillary Clinton calls the Bernie Sanders approach to health care “starting over again.” To me that is an incoherent objection. It isn’t as if Sanders would propose a single-payer system by first going back to the pre-Obamacare system. Either the status quo would continue or a Sanders-backed bill would replace it. How is that “starting over”?

You can see from those opening statements the messaging edge that Sanders has. Many Democrats care a great deal about all of the things Clinton cited—racism, sexism, discrimation against LBGT people—but none of that makes for as punchy a slogan as "End the rigged economy, create an economy that works for all." Say what you want about how Clinton is a career politician and Sanders is an outsider, but he's grasped something important about how messaging.

Senator Sanders starts out the debate expressing anger at what he calls a rigged economic system. Hillary Clinton says of course those are problems, then adds that racism and sexism are also problems. “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” she concludes. Zing.

“Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process,” Bernie Sanders says in his opening statement.

“I believe that America has the opportunity to once again live up to our values in the 21st century,” says Clinton in her opening statement. It’s a reminder of the dual nature of invocations of American greatness. Donald Trump evokes a sense that the nation’s greatest days lie behind it, and calls for a return; Clinton, like other Democrats, tends to stress old ideals that are finding new realization.