Who would have expected that the most hotly contested figure in a Democratic presidential debate in 2016 would be Henry Kissinger?
The nonagenarian foreign-policy eminence was the subject of the biggest fireworks of Thursday night’s debate in Milwaukee, which came after some 75 minutes of a mostly earnest, dry debate. As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders tangled over whether experience (she) or judgment (he, in not voting for the Iraq war) mattered more for a commander-in-chief, Sanders delivered a zinger.
“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders declared, referring to Clinton’s praise for the former secretary of state during the last debate. Suddenly, all hell broke loose. In a surreal spectacle, Clinton—a child of the 1960s campus left and a leader of the nation’s liberal party—defended Kissinger, once a bogeyman to the Democratic Party. She tried to turn the argument back on Sanders, noting that he hadn’t managed to name who his own foreign-policy advisers are. He was ready: “It ain’t Henry Kissinger,” he replied. In a moment of peak Sanders, he then attacked Kissinger for—of all things—backing free-trade agreements. (Alex Pareene wrote eloquently last week about why Kissinger is such a problem for Clinton.)
It wasn’t the only attack Sanders leveled at Clinton on foreign policy. “You’ve got a bit of experience,” he said. “But judgment matters as well.” As usual, he invoked his vote against the war in Iraq, but Sanders also criticized Clinton’s leadership on U.S. intervention in Libya. His critique was very similar to Republican Senator Ted Cruz’s objection to the Libyan war: It’s all well and good to oppose dictators, but you shouldn’t back regime change if you don’t know what will come afterward. Those were doozies, blows that strike right at the heart of Clinton’s experience—her major qualification.
But Clinton had tricks up her sleeve, too. For the final question, the candidates were asked what foreign-policy leaders they most respected. Sanders named Franklin Roosevelt, while hardly mentioning his global record, and Winston Churchill, whose morality was hardly more defensible than Kissinger’s. Clinton, going second, spotted a moment to pillory Sanders. She named Barack Obama, and blasted Sanders for his criticisms of the president, especially a call for a primary challenger to Obama in 2012. Sanders was livid and red-faced. “Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” he said. “Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.” He added: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.” While she has brought these differences up before, it was perhaps Clinton’s most effective jab at Sanders yet, and he seemed genuinely rattled.
It was especially striking because it came during a debate in which Clinton mostly hugged Sanders close. Throughout the campaign, she has tried to align herself with Obama, portraying herself as the guardian of his legacy. But after Sanders’s blowout win in the New Hampshire primary this week, Clinton is trying to adopt chunks of his platform. After Sanders’s conventional opening about how the economy is rigged, Clinton readily agreed: “Yes, the economy is rigged for those at the top.”
Things went that way for most of the night. Thursday’s debate was wonkish, if you’re charitable—or dull, if you’re not. Just a few weeks ago, everyone was clamoring for more Democratic debates, but after watching this one, it’s a little tough to recall why. Clinton and Sanders’s electoral battle is hotter than ever, but their debates have mostly settled into a comfortable pattern and set of topics. They tend to delve deeply into issues, but if you’re looking for sharp contrasts, debates might not be the best place to find them.
The candidates worked hard to differentiate themselves, but they agree on many things: universal health care, ending mass incarceration, abortion rights, helping working-class white communities, taxing the rich. Both candidates want to raise taxes, although Clinton is careful to say she would only do that for the wealthy, while Sanders would raise middle-class taxes while also providing more benefits, he says. Asked what part of the government they would cut, both resorted to promising to slash waste and fraud—an essentially meaningless answer. One notable exception to the comity came on immigration, where Clinton struck Sanders for not voting for the comprehensive immigration-reform bill in 2007. The night also featured a short discussion of women’s reproductive health, a topic that advocates had been complaining was absent from prior debates. But since the two candidates mostly agree, they moved on quickly.
Deprived of major differences, the candidates retreated to familiar mantras. For Sanders, that’s the belief that the entire economy is rigged and that the ultimate solution is political revolution. As usual, he boasted that, unlike Clinton, he has no super PAC and relies on small donors, but he did not take the chance to reprise his very effective attack about her speeches to Goldman Sachs. Clinton missed a softball pitch from Judy Woodruff, who asked how wealthy donors to her campaign were different from wealthy donors to Republicans—didn’t they all want a quid pro quo? Rather than take the easy answer—that her policies would boost the middle class and hurt those donors—she tried instead to brag about her small-dollar donors, a metric on which she’ll never beat Sanders.
Clinton’s mantra is execution. She repeatedly argued that Sanders owed voters a fuller explanation of how he’d get things done. She landed a direct blow on Sanders’s plan for free college tuition, which relies on states to cover one-third of the cost of tuition. Pointing to Wisconsin’s conservative Republican Governor Scott Walker, she said the plan was unrealistic: If red states wouldn’t accept Medicaid expansion that was 100 percent paid for, why would any GOP governors help Sanders out? She closed strong, saying, “I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”
Neither politician had a dominant night, and each had his or her stumbles. It was Sanders’s strongest performance so far on foreign policy, typically his Achilles’ heel, and his well-rehearsed message on the rigged economy resonates with Democrats. Clinton was even better, though. After Sanders debated well last Thursday and then trounced her in New Hampshire, Clinton badly needed a strong performance tonight, and she got it. Clinton was competent, wonky, and pounced on Sanders’s weaknesses. But is this debate enough to stall Sanders’s momentum and help her to regain her footing, or is it just a brief respite for her?
—David A. Graham