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Flint Wins the Democratic Debate

Hillary Clinton relied on anecdote and Bernie Sanders on principle—but the real story was that local residents forced the candidates to grapple with their community’s particular concerns.

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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.

Yoni Appelbaum


This live blog has concluded

I’m a little surprised that Clinton and Sanders weren’t asked about abortion rights tonight. Moderators haven’t asked the candidates about it at any of the seven debates so far, but its absence tonight comes less than a week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, one of the most significant cases on the issue in over a decade. A vacancy on the Court also makes it more relevant than usual for a presidential candidate to address.

Geoff Robins / Getty

Sanders’s closing statement: I grew up poor. Terrible things are happening in Flint, and all over the country, where people lack health insurance, paid leave, and good schools. The 1 percent are robbing us blind, super PACs, special interests. Rise up!

Clinton’s closing statement: Let’s knock down barriers. Economic barriers. Barriers to health care. Barriers to education. Barriers of systemic racism. I won’t get in the gutter with the Republicans, I’ll lift our sights to better days.

The last two questions of the debate are centered on religion. According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of residents in Michigan say “religion is very important in their lives.”

Sanders has largely avoided referencing his religious background in this race. When asked about whether that’s intentional, Sanders says: “No, I’m very proud in being Jewish and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean.”

The Supreme Court last month blocked the Obama administration’s carbon-emissions plan until a legal challenge by 29 states plays out—just days before Antonin Scalia died.  If adopted, the plan—the centerpiece of President Obama’s efforts to combat climate change—would push state utilities to retire old coal-burning electricity plants.

“Compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week,” Clinton says in the first jab to the Republican Party. Sanders piggybacks, “We are going to invest a lot in mental health and when you watch these Republican debates, you know why.”

For most Americans, fracking is an energy opportunity whose benefits are immediate and costs are a distant concern. That’s because the shale formations are largely concentrated in a few regions—North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas. Clinton’s answer on whether she supports fracking is probably in line with most of the public thinks—that her support is contingent on extraction being done safely. Sanders answer—a flat no—aligns more closely with concerned activists who live in fracking territory and believe no amount of risk of environmental degradation is worth the possible rewards. The reason there are still two answers on the debate stage tonight is that no one is really sure of the long-term risk fracking poses.

Jeff Haynes / Getty

Just because you can raise a trillion dollars through eliminating tax loopholes like corporate inversions—if you can even do that—doesn’t mean Congress will allocate it toward a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.

The sticker price on Hillary Clinton’s infrastructure pales to that of Bernie Sanders’s plan. As my colleague Russell Berman has noted, the former secretary of state is calling for  for $275 billion in new spending on roads, bridges, rails, and airports in comparison with Sanders’s $1 trillion plan, but it’s a number that is perhaps better prepared for the general election in that it would prevent “sticker shock.”

When I visit Detroit's schools, both charter and public, I see bright kids and talented teachers—but they’re poorly led, underfunded, and demoralized.

I really do hope they have some discussion about the implications of both candidates’ higher-education plans for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. Even though Senator Jim Clyburn’s fears about Sanders’s free college plan eroding private HBCUs are likely hyperbole, the ingrained fear about these institutions are real. Plan or no plan, we could be seeing the last gasps of a system of MSIs that still serves to fill in glaring diversity gaps in higher education and still does the best job at preparing minority students for graduate school.

Hillary Clinton waffles on whether teacher’s unions protect bad teachers. They certainly do here in Los Angeles, home to one of the biggest school districts in the country. Public-sector unions also protect the jobs of bad police officers and abusive prison guards. Here’s a great Los Angeles Times article on how hard it is to fire a bad teacher in L.A. Unified School District.

Bernie Sanders, channeling John Rawls: A great nation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable among us; and America should be ashamed by how it treats children and the elderly.

Progressive gay-rights activist Zach Wahls makes a great point on Twitter: Is this the first presidential debate with two openly gay moderators? The all-female panel for the PBS debate a couple weeks ago was widely noted; I haven't seen this get as much attention.

In response to a question about their “blind spots” when it comes to race, Clinton references a recent meeting with the mother of Trayvon Martin. Clinton is supported by several other women who lost children to violence and police brutality, including the mothers of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner, who have held forums and campaigned for her.

Scott Olson / Getty

Clinton says she has talked to “black people about what it is like to have the talk with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters even could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever, like Sandra Bland, and end up dead in a jail in Texas.” Bland, a 28-year-old Chicago woman, was found dead in an alleged suicide in her jail cell three days after she was arrested during a routine traffic stop in Texas last July. Bland had been stopped by Brian Encinia, a white state trooper, for failing to use a turn signal. Footage captured by the dashboard camera on Encinia’s car showed a heated verbal exchange that culminated in Encinia dragging Bland out of the car. Encinia was formally fired just last week.

I continue to believe that on matters of race, President Obama has an as impressive record of speaking thoughtfully and  inclusively as I can imagine. I understand those who criticize him for being too conservative in his remarks. But I am baffled by the conservatives who accuse him of being racially divisive. It may be the least fair criticism of his presidency.

Clinton just mentioned her work investigating segregation academies. Amy Chozick of The New York Times took an in-depth look at this aspect of Clinton’s biography back in December. It’s worth a read. “A look at Mrs. Clinton’s efforts that summer ... reveals a summer job that was both out of character for the bookish law student and a moment of awakening,” Chozick writes. “Like many white activists from the North who traveled south to help on civil rights issues, Mrs. Clinton confronted a different world in Dothan, [Alabama], separate and unequal, and a sting of injustice she had previously only read about.”

Footage and a photograph from Sanders’s 1963 arrest at a protest against segregation in Chicago public schools in Englewood emerged only last month. At the time, the presidential candidate was a 21-year-old student at the University of Chicago.  Sanders was charged with resisting arrest and fined $25. You can watch Sanders’s arrest here.

"At the end of my first term,” Sanders said, “we will not have more people in jail than any other country."

Taking that pledge literally would require reducing the overall incarcerated population, currently around 2.2 million, by almost 700,000 over just four years. Seen that way, it’s one of the most sweeping and ambitious pledges of total social transformation ever made by a leading candidate on a debate stage.

Even that would hardly end the crisis of mass incarceration, though—just get the United States down to the level of China, a country with more than four times its population, and which is hardly a beacon of human rights or civil liberties. That unthinkably radical reforms simultaneously signal a paucity of imagination is a measure of how deep the crisis of mass incarceration runs.

Don Lemon asks, “What racial blind spots do you have?” Isn’t a blind spot something that, by definition, one couldn’t self-diagnose? Somewhere, Don Rumsfeld is shaking his head thinking, “I tried to tell them about known unknowns, but did they listen?"

Sanders’s promise to seriously reduce the incarcerated population is certainly good for drumming up support, but how much can the president actually directly impact incarceration? Also, how much did the 1994 crime bill actually impact incarceration rates? While we can argue that the bill set the tone for state laws such as the “three-strikes” law, a good portion of the heavy lifting of locking black people up has always been done by states. How can any president roll that back?

Don Lemon asks Hillary Clinton why black people should trust her to end “the era of mass incarceration” following her support of the 1994 crime bill. Clinton concedes that some aspects of it were a mistake. Bill Clinton, who signed the bill into law, has said it has made the country’s criminal justice system “worse.”

In response to a question on how Bernie Sanders understands other cultures, he cites his work to desegregate the Chicago schools in the 1960s. The question pinpoints an uphill battle that Sanders faces, as he tries to appeal to minority voters today. The Vermont senator has done well in largely white states, but he has struggled to gain traction among minority voters.

Hillary Clinton’s backing for the 1994 crime bill––which strikes me as a mistake in hindsight—hasn’t seemed to cost her many black voters. That may be because many of those same voters who were old enough to do so in fact supported that bill at the time.

That was a HUGE  cheer for Clinton connecting corporate greed to the gun manufacturers.

Interestingly, the NRA increasingly is funded by gun manufacturers, after decades spent insisting it spoke for rank-and-file gun owners rather than the companies that make firearms. Our former colleague Jordan Weissman wrote about this issue in 2012.

The political imagination around gun control is still so focused on manufacturers and the supply. But why isn't liability insurance mandated for gun owners the same way it is for ownership of our other deadly machines, cars?

Bernie Sanders’s gun position is tricky. He says that if a gun manufacturer is selling in an area where they know the weapon is likely to be used for nefarious purposes, then “of course, they should be held responsible.” But, he says, if someone walks into a store and legally buys a gun, we shouldn’t hold the gun manufacturer responsible if that person then commits a crime. How on earth are these distinctions made?

His point that if gun manufacturers are held responsible for mass shootings then the country would effectively have ended the selling of guns in the United States is sound though. It surely would.

Bernie Sanders, ostensibly quoting President Obama, says, “We have got to do everything we possibly can to minimize these mass killings.” But that isn’t true. There are all sorts of things—mass surveillance, stop-and-frisk, metal detectors at every restaurant and theater door in America—that we shouldn’t do.

The father of a girl injured in the mass shooting in Kalamazoo earlier this year asks a question on how the two candidates will address the epidemic of mass shootings in the United States. In her response, Hillary Clinton delivers a veiled attack on Bernie Sanders in reference to a 2005 vote that granted immunity to gun manufactures from prosecution. Sanders has recently supported legislation that would amend the law.

“If you hold them accountable,” Sanders says in his defense, “you end gun manufacturing in this country.” And Sanders does not think ending that industry a good idea.

“The government at all levels” failed Flint, Michigan, Hillary Clinton said Sunday night. With that, she exposed the Democratic fallacy that the city’s water crisis is singularly a Republican problem.

Clinton and Sanders also grappled with uncomfortable questions about trust in government and their politicization of Flint. In a debate from the hard-bitten heart of the industrial Midwest, Clinton joined Sanders’ weeks-long demand that Republican Governor Rick Snyder resign or be recalled. Clinton demanded state and federal aid to help the city recover. “It’s raining lead in Flint,” she said.

Prodded by CNN moderator Anderson Cooper, Clinton noted that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to protect Flint after the Snyder administration allowed the city’s water to be poisoned. One EPA employee, the leader of the agency’s Midwest region, was forced from her her job over the Flint crisis. “I don’t know how high it goes,” Clinton said of the EPA. “I would certainly be launching an investigation.”

Neither candidate had a clear answer to two questions: How would you restore the public’s trust in government? Why did it take you so long to care about Flint?

What if they took a different approach to Flint from the start? Rather than looking backward to assign blame—even, belatedly, on Democratic officials—they could look forward. They could cast Flint as an example of the broader need to reinvent government—not to be smaller or bigger, but to be more efficient and connected to a tech-empowered public, where mutual transparency and data sharing can leverage the wisdom of crowds.

As noted, Sanders likes to say that only “one of us has a super PAC.” As Priscilla pointed out earlier, this isn’t technically true—there is one supporting him—but the underlying premise is also flawed. Federal law prohibits super PACs from coordinating with campaigns and candidates, so legally speaking, neither of them “has” a super PAC. But the common understanding that super PACs are indistinguishable from the candidates they support has permeated American political discourse. Even the candidates themselves conflate them sometimes.

That’s not how this was supposed to work. Noncoordination is supposed to prevent the reality or appearance of quid pro quo corruption in U.S. politics. That’s one of the reasons the Supreme Court struck down limits on independent expenditures in Citizens United. But if citizens and candidates aren't distinguishing between campaign donations and independent donations, why should the justices?

The Export-Import Bank is one of those federal institutions whose name always pops up in political discussions but whose job still remains obscure. Simply put, it finances loans for foreign purchases of American goods, making it easier to sell certain stuff abroad. You could argue that the Bank’s support of Boeing and Caterpillar amount to corporate welfare. But if you work on the Caterpillar assembly line, you might say that it’s one of the few federal organizations actively working to keep manufacturing jobs in America.

On Europe, Bernie Sanders says, “Every one of those countries guarantees health care for all of those people as a right,” drawing a contrast with the United States. Sanders has looked to Europe in the past in an effort that, as David noted last year, appears to be “heralding the end of American exceptionalism.”

Geoff Robins / AFP / Getty

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stand during the national anthem at the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan.

Sanders criticizes Clinton for her hefty speaking fees, which her 2014 tax returns revealed were at least $225,000. “You said her speech must be a Shakespearean speech for that amount of money,” Anderson says to Sanders. Fun fact: According to historians, the Bard was paid about 10 £, or about $14.20 per play. That’s hundreds of dollars, perhaps thousands, in today’s money.

Bernie Sanders is pulling a sleight-of-hand here, as he castigates trade for the decline of Detroit—which, as he notes, was the wealthiest city in America on a per capita basis in 1960.

Free trade can take some of the blame for the decline of the American auto industry, for which Detroit is sometimes employed as a metonym. But Sanders is talking about the actual city. And the municipality of Detroit entered its steep decline long before Japanese auto manufacturers eroded G.M.’s profits; it fell victim to decades of state and federal policies that promoted investment in suburban greenfield factories, but prevented black workers from buying homes near the relocated jobs. As Tom Sugrue brilliantly demonstrates in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, race lay at the heart of this.

Bernie Sanders’s Twitter account has been promoting this trade-based account of Detroit’s decline. And it speaks to some of the struggles his candidacy has encountered. He tends to focus on broad economic forces that have disparate impact on minority communities, but tends not to grapple with racism itself, or the way it shapes and distorts public policy. But American inequality long antedates NAFTA—this was a country whose early wealth was entwined with slavery—and it’s hard to see how a single-minded assault on free trade alone will succeed in remedying it.

On agreeing with Ted Cruz on the issue of corporate welfare, Sanders says, “I don’t want to break the bad news, Democrats are not always right.”

Hillary Clinton says that if any bank poses a systemic risk to the economy it will be broken up. So… if Goldman Sachs or Bank of America failed tomorrow would that pose “a systemic risk to America”? I want a follow-up question about whether she thinks any existing financial institutions pose such a risk.

Bernie Sanders casts the fall of the American auto industry as a simple story of wages. That surely played a role—but so did the sometimes absurd work rules imposed by the auto unions. Japan isn’t a low-wage nation. Neither is Germany. Yet both produced cars of far higher quality than anything Americans made for decades. There’s an old This American Life episode that illustrates how the dysfunction introduced by labor-union work rules helped make U.S. auto companies uncompetitive.

If they both lose I would love to see Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders join forces in the Senate against corporate welfare.

Clinton is hitting Sanders hard on his votes against the 2009 automaker bailout. Each time in response, Sanders has deftly pivoted to focus on Wall Street excess. It’s a smart move. The bailout was popular in Michigan when it came under consideration, and remained so years later: In 2011, 66 percent of Michigan voters believed the recovery package was “a good thing” for the state.

Sanders lists off the “one of us” that has a super PAC.  The senator from Vermont has repeatedly used this line of attack against Clinton on the campaign trail. But, as Clare notes, there is a super PAC backing Sanders that has spent more than $550,000 in support of the senator. More here.

Clinton’s argument that she went to Wall Street and chewed them out remains puzzlingly weak. She clearly doesn’t think she succeeded in making the bankers clean up their act, and by arguing that’s all she did to stand up to them, she underscores Sanders’s criticism of her weakness on the issue.

In response to Sanders demanding she release the transcripts of her several Wall Street speeches, Clinton says she’ll release her speeches when “everyone else does.” Sanders then waves his hands in the air as though releasing his “speeches” and says: “There it is! There’s nothing!”

Hillary Clinton says that President Obama took money from Wall Street, and was then tough on Wall Street. But Bernie Sanders’s whole campaign is premised on the notion that Obama hasn’t been tough on Wall Street at all. I think Sanders has the better side of that argument.

Scott Olson / Getty

Bernie Sanders speak to a crowd at Macomb Community College in Warren, Michigan.

Clinton and Sanders have now both called for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign from office because of the Flint water crisis. This week, he’ll likely get a grilling from Congress when he testifies in front of the House Oversight Committee later this month, alongside EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. Chair Jason Chaffetz took some heat from Democrats, including committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, for not inviting the governor to an earlier hearing on Flint.  “We are committed to investigating the failures in Flint,” Chaffetz said in a statement after Snyder reportedly invited himself to a hearing. His and McCarthy’s “perspectives on this issue are important as we seek to ensure a crisis of this magnitude never occurs in another American city.”

“Excuse me, I’m talking,” Sanders says, in one of the sharpest moments we’ve seen during the Democratic debates. “If you’re going to talk, tell the whole story, Senator,” Hillary Clinton says, in response to Bernie Sanders’s attack against her relationship with Wall Street.

Bernie Sanders says that American workers shouldn’t be forced to compete against workers making low wages in Mexico and Vietnam. But if America had used its hard power to prevent people in poorer countries from taking advantage of their comparative advantage––cheap labor and lower costs of living—the result would have been to consign those people to poverty much deeper than what exists in even America’s poorest regions. Free trade has been one of the greatest boons to the planet’s poor people––and insofar as trade has hurt poor countries, it’s often when the United States has leveraged its might to pass policies that gave it an unfair advantage on agricultural commodities.

Scott Olson / Getty

Hillary Clinton at a Detroit manufacturing-systems facility this week.

Bernie Sanders has ramped up attacks against Hillary Clinton on free trade coming into tonight’s debate—and days before Michigan’s primary on Tuesday, a state dependent on manufacturing. “I am very glad, Anderson, that Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue,” Sanders says. Sanders places blame on trade agreements for eliminating jobs. He has also targeted the former secretary of state for her support of free trade agreements like NAFTA, which Bill Clinton signed into law. And remains skeptical about her position on the Trans Pacific Partnership, which she opposed late last year.

What a terrible dilemma people in Flint face. Either campaign to have the automotive industry that polluted the city for the better part of a century return or face health risks like the lead crisis that come from their aging infrastructure and declining tax base. Is there not a third way that involves green jobs or cleanup?

Hillary Clinton recalls working with then-Senator Barack Obama on lead efforts. Such an approach from the former secretary of state may resonate with voters, who in some exit polls appear to favor a candidate with experience. But, as the following question reveals, doubt still lingers among residents about how trustworthy politicians are. As one resident asked, is the crisis away to gain political points. Put simply, Clinton says no.

Anderson asks Clinton and Sanders whether they’d fire the head of the EPA over its involvement in the water crisis. Like local and state officials, the federal agency knew about the contamination last April, well before it was made public in January. EPA chief Gina McCarthy has defended her agency’s response to the crisis, and EPA is conducting an audit of Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s water program.  The EPA’s top Midwest official in January said the EPA had spent six months prodding Michigan state officials to act once it became clear there was a problem with Flint’s water.

Okay, we’re quickly reaching the point at which the moderators need to recognize that the Flint crisis, for all its local importance, represents a tiny slice of how the next president of the United States will affect Michiganders––especially because there’s no real difference between the candidates.

What's happening in Flint is obviously terrible, but I still fail to see how making it the centerpiece of a Democratic debate is anything but an outrage-off. Neither of them will be president in time to fix the problem, and their proposed solutions—essentially having the federal government Do Something About It—aren't philosophically revealing in any way. They're just trying to seem more concerned than one another. It's like the Republicans having an entire debate about, like, Obamacare or Benghazi.

"We will commit to a priority to change the water systems, and we'll commit within 5 years to remove lead from everywhere." Clinton vows. "Water, soil, and paint. We're gonna get rid of it."

I agree with Conor, here to an extent. Following this story, there has been much anger directed at the federal government for its failure to step in and force the state and local governments to act. While the EPA played a part in the failure here, especially by their failure to simplify rules and their failure to step in once it was clear that water treatment programs were not in place, there really aren't good policy levers in place by which they might take over. We see the limitations of federal power now. Even with the full attention of the federal government focused on Flint, they still don't have clean water yet and solutions are still lacking.

Republican Senator Mike Lee from Utah blocked a bipartisan funding bill that would have given $220 million to Flint. He said Michigan didn’t need it because the state has a budget surplus. On Friday, he said: "What is happening to the people of Flint, Michigan, is a man-made disaster. Congress has special mechanisms for emergency spending when it is needed, but to date Michigan's governor has not asked us for any, nor have Michigan's senators proposed any. Contrary to media reports, there is no federal 'aid package' for Flint even being considered.” Apparently, the governor did request $200 million of state money for the enormous project of fixing Flint. Lee continued: "The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding."

As Yoni noted, these questions have been Flint-specific. In an answer just now, Clinton argued how Flint is emblematic of other cities in the U.S. "This is not the only place where this kind of action is needed," Clinton said. "We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins ... are way above what anybody should tolerate."

"At the end of the day, I trust the people to create a government that works for them, rather than Wall Street or corporate America," Sanders says in response to whether government should be trusted to fix the water crisis in Flint.

I sympathize with the people of Flint, and it’s only natural that Michiganders would wonder what presidential candidates think about the failures that caused the water catastrophe. At the same time, there’s something to be said for the reality that no president is able to spare Americans future catastrophes of this sort if state and local officials fail. One thing the Flint catastrophe points to is the importance of competent state and local leadership. And the hollowing out of the state and local press, as newspapers have laid off workers, put a lot of American communities in more vulnerable positions than they once were.

Bernie Sanders suggests that the federal government should step in and help people whose water is poisoned. I have no problem with that position. But federal intervention is only ever going to come after disaster has struck. Paying a bit more attention to state and local politics, and a bit less attention to national politics, is probably the best thing that voters can do to safeguard their communities.

There have been debates across the map of early primary states. And there are often local questions thrown into the mix—usually an hour or so into the debate, after the moderators have asked about the headlines, or pulled out their cleverest queries.

Tonight, it’s different. Ten minutes in, the questions have focused on Flint—on one very particular place, and the dire challenges it faces. It’s a different lens through which to view national and global issues—the way that most Americans perceive them, filtered through the experiences of their own particular communities. And already, it’s helping to illuminate the salient differences between these candidates.

A member of the audience, Mikki Wade, public housing program manager, asks the first question in tonight’s debate: “If elected president, what course will you take to regain my trust in the government?”

"But more importantly, what is happening in Flint is happening to a lesser degree throughout this country," Sanders says. The basic gist is right, but those suffering from lead poisoning in other Rust Belt towns and places like Baltimore might question anything being "lesser." Interesting to see Sanders highlight income inequality as a key cause of environmental injustices. He's right, but it's on an axis he hasn't addressed much: One of the biggest facets of income inequality is geographic inequality. Segregation on income and racial lines, assumption of environmental risks. How can he break the almost ironclad rules of geography that bound so much of American life?

Hillary Clinton just started the Flint WaterWorks Initiative with a $500,000 donation from the Pritzker Family Foundation. Chelsea Clinton and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver announced the projecttoday. Flint WaterWorks will give jobs to 100 out-of-work young people to pass out water and get started on infrastructure.

Clinton: "I agree, the governor should resign or be recalled ... but that is not enough." She pushes for sending federal and state funding to Flint to fix infrastructure, highlighting Michigan's rainy day fund. "It is raining lead in Flint."

“What I heard and what I saw literally shattered me and was beyond belief that children in Flint, Michigan in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned,” Bernie Sanders says in his opening remarks, again calling for the resignation of Snyder.

Cooper added that politicians' decisions "created this crisis," by making changes to the city's water supply. Sanders and Clinton will address the city's troubles in their answers tonight.

Anderson Cooper first remarks on the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the debate is taking place and that serves as its backdrop. “We’ve come to Flint because it’s a city in crisis,” Cooper says. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both addressed the crisis on the campaign trail. Sanders called for the resignation of Michigan Governor Rick Snyder in January. And Clinton has criticized Snyder, suggesting that if the crisis had happened in another suburb, Snyder may have paid it more attention.

The debate kicks off with a moment of silence for the former first lady Nancy Reagan who died today at the age of 94. Candidates shared their condolences throughout the day. Hillary and Bill Clinton released a statement: "Nancy was an extraordinary woman: a gracious First Lady, proud mother, and devoted wife to President Reagan—her Ronnie.” So did Bernie Sanders, who said it was a “sad day for America,” adding “Nancy Reagan had a good heart, and she will be dearly missed.”

Nora noted Sanders’s last-minute endorsement from Senator Don Riegle, a native son of Flint. Riegle has receded from the national scene, but his backing may resonate with precisely the sort of older voters Sanders is seeking to add to his coalition.

But it was hard not to notice the incongruity of Riegle’s message. He’s best remembered today as one of the Keating Five, a group of senators accused of helping Charles Keating, a central figure in the Savings and Loans scandal of the 1990s. Until it was eclipsed by the recent financial crisis, the S&L scandal—and the Keating Five in particular—stood as the signal example of the corruption of Congress by powerful financial forces, to the detriment of the public at large.

As a legislature, his signature accomplishment was the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The bill allowed banks to open branches across state lines. Riegle, and Clinton, argued that this was necessary to ensure the competitiveness of American financial institutions in an increasingly global market. Critics, then and now, contend that it squeezed out local lending institutions, beginning a process of consolidation that would result in the financial crisis of 2008.

There’s a positive case to be made for Riegle’s experience. If there’s any former member of Congress well-positioned to condemn the corrosive effects of money, or to decry the deregulation of financial institutions, surely it is he. At the same time, it suggests some of the tensions facing Sanders as he tries to expand his coalition to encompass enough voters to find a path toward victory. It’s hard to see Riegle as the arbiter of honesty, or an effective spokesman for a campaign built around the promise of a different sort of politics.

Less than an hour and a half before the Democratic debate was set to start on CNN, the Sanders campaign announced it was assembling a last-minute press conference to unveil a big endorsement. The backer? Former Michigan Senator Don Riegle, who left the Hill in the mid-90s. Standing next to Sanders, Riegle cited Sanders' honesty and trustworthiness as an “essential differentiator.” Special-interest money is "contaminating our political system" like "poisonous" water damaged Flint, and only Sanders, Riegle said, has refused super PAC support. The former senator said Sanders would handily win across the United States in a general election, "not just primaries in red states," and he's the "best chance for Democrats, independents, and thoughtful Republicans."

Riegle spent much of his time giving a "necessary accounting" of decisions made by the Clinton administration that "badly damaged our country," including Flint and other industrial cities: "devastating" NAFTA and the "monstrous" mistake of repeal of Glass-Steagall, both of which Sanders did not support. Lastly, Riegle railed against Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq War in the early 2000s, which not only resulted in solders' lives lost, but also siphoned money away from cities like Flint. "That money was urgently needed here in America."

“We built Cadillacs, Buicks, and Fisher bodies. GM trucks, Chevrolets, and AC spark plugs. We enjoyed a prosperity that working people had never seen,” Michael Moore recalls at the beginning of Roger and Me. “This was Flint as I remember, where every day was a great day.”