Early in Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Bernie Sanders launched an attack on Hillary Clinton’s record with Wall Street. “If you're going to talk, tell the whole story, Senator Sanders,” she angrily interjected.
“Let me tell my story. You tell yours,” he replied.
“I will,” she promised. And she did. Throughout the night, Clinton turned to narrative, to stories of individuals, to make her points. When she came to Flint, she said, she “met with some of the mothers, and met their children, and heard their stories.” Asked about race, she told the story of her mentor Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. And when she clashed with Sanders on gun control, instead of resorting to statistics, she said:
I know some of the parents from Sandy Hook. I want people in this audience to think about what it must feel like to send off your first grader, little backpack, maybe, on his or her back, and then the next thing you hear is that somebody has come to that school using an automatic weapon, an AR-15, and murdered those children.
It was Clinton at her most effective.
Sanders put his own strengths on display. After Clinton gave a long, detailed answer parsing how to properly balance the risks and rewards of fracking by means of effective oversight and regulation, Sanders got his turn. “My answer is a lot shorter,” he said. “No, I do not support fracking.”
That sort of bracing, direct honesty and single-minded commitment to principle has carried Sanders much farther in this race than perhaps even he suspected he’d go. Earlier in the day, it fueled his victory in Maine, as it had the day before in Nebraska and Kansas.
But Sunday night’s debate was also a powerful reminder of the purposes of politics. It was held in a city already devastated by the loss of jobs, and now victim to catastrophic failures of governance at every level. As local residents stepped up to ask their own questions of the candidates, they spelled out the stakes of this election in deeply personal terms, grounding the debates over abstract principles in the questions with which their communities are struggling.
The first questioner wanted to know how they’d restore trust in government—an anodyne query in most places, but not in Flint, where that faith had been lost in “the constant drives to pick up water just so my children can wash their hair, to wash our fruits and vegetables, and to brush our teeth.” A question about infrastructure began, “After my family [was] poisoned by lead…” On it went through the night. An aspiring autoworker wondering where jobs had gone. A father whose daughter was shot by a gunman in Kalamazoo two weeks before. A woman who wanted to know for whom and to whom Clinton prays.
The candidates did their best to field these questions. At moments, they succeeded in tying their sweeping agendas to these deeply personal concerns. But they also illustrated the inadequacy of any presidential candidate, or even a president, grappling with these problems on their own.
How to solve Flint’s crisis? Clinton and Sanders called on Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder to resign. Whatever the merits of that idea, the problems in Flint were the product of failures at every level of government, and of decades of systematic disinvestment in infrastructure—decisions that span the partisan divide. Sanders blamed free trade for Detroit’s travails, ignoring that the city’s problems began decades before foreign competition eroded profits, as factories migrated out of the city and redlining kept black workers from following. Clinton offered up a comprehensive manufacturing plan, without explaining whether it’d bring auto-manufacturing jobs back to Flint, or whether any plan could.
So who won?
Both candidates delivered strong performances, but given the patterns of support to this point, that’s probably not enough for Sanders to turn things around.
The real achievement of the night was forcing the presidential contenders to grapple with the very real problems of one very particular community. Anderson Cooper, the CNN moderator, used the end of the debate to announce that a union fund had pledged $25 million to help fix the pipes in Flint. That may be as positive an outcome as any presidential debate will generate this year.