Why the Latest Debate Was Good (and a Little Bad) for Both Clinton and Sanders

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
At the debate (Mike Segar / Reuters)

I agree with David Graham’s summing up of the “hedgehog-vs.-fox” nature of the Democratic debate last night, and with nearly all of the Atlantic liveblogging that is now collected below David’s piece. (I missed the liveblogging boat because I hadn’t thought I’d see the debate. When I did, I sent out pensées on Twitter.)

Three points about the debate:

1) As an exchange of ideas—and as a display of contrasting outlooks, casts of mind, temperament, goals, frames of reference, theories of politics, etc — these two hours were more valuable than all the previous stretches of “debate” put together.

More simply, this one actually was a debate, in contrast to the previous Survivor-style contests for attention or Wrestlemania-style displays of posturing. (By the way, if you haven’t seen the video of Donald Trump shaving Vince McMahon’s head in a wrestling ring, watch it soon.) The others have been side-by-side displays of putdowns, talking points, and pleas for attention. This one was two people arguing about policies, past records, and future plans.

No doubt there are many reasons for the difference, starting with that neither debater on the stage was Trump. Also, that Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow wisely decided not to make the show mainly about them. But the fundamental advantage in this debate was that there were only two contestants. They didn’t have to fight desperately for air time. (“Wolf, Wolf, Wolf, please call on me!” “Megyn, oh Megyn! I’m not getting a fair chance!”) They were more likely to respond to the point their opponent had made, or deal with the question the moderator asked.

Sadly, this may not augur well for the general-election debates this fall. Even though they’ll (presumably) also have just two combatants, the agreed-on terrain of history, facts, and goals will be much narrower than it was last night. Thus we’re likely to hear a nominee Trump (or Cruz, Rubio, etc) saying that America is weaker than ever, and more endangered by immigrants — and a nominee Clinton (or Sanders, etc) saying that yes we have problems, but of a different sort. In practical terms, the remaining GOP debates are likely still to be melees, since the narrowing-down to two candidates is nowhere in sight.

But there is one bright positive prospect, involving the next rounds of Clinton-vs.-Sanders Democratic showdowns. The DNC’s gross strategic error in trying to minimize debates, and schedule them when no one will watch, was never more evident than last night. The more of these, the better — for the two candidates, for the electorate, and for the party.

2) Good for both the candidates? Yes. The impossible is possible, and these debates can help both candidates at once.

Obviously any political race is in the end a zero-sum contest. Democrats will have to vote for either Clinton or Sanders (or someone else). Whether they like them both, or dislike them, they’ll have to choose one. But at this stage, there’s such a thing as a debate that helps both competitors, and that is what we saw last night. Both Sanders and Clinton made their case, showed command of (most) issues, challenged each other sharply, but also revealed at the end their mutual respect. If you’re a Democrat, no matter which candidate you support, last night could (generally) make you feel better about your choice. It was more a “here’s why I’m good” debate, than a “here’s why you’re bad.”

If the race goes on, gets closer, and grows more bitter, that might not hold up. But for now, and in comparison with often-bitter Democratic primary races of the past (like Obama-Clinton eight years ago), this one is pretty comradely.

3) There’s always room for improvement. Clinton has developed an effective answer to the “what about your emails??” question. That answer is: Oh, let’s cut this B.S. She needs to develop a vastly better answer to the “what about your speeches?” question. “It’s what they offered”? That won’t do.

Maybe an attempt at self-deprecation: “Some people would pay not to hear one of my speeches, so when they made the offer, I snapped it up.”

Maybe something Trump-like in its directness: “Let’s be honest. It was a lot of money for very little work, and I suspect there’s not a person in this room who wouldn’t take the offer in a heartbeat if it came up. Just like I took Mr. Trump’s donation when he asked my husband and me to come to his wedding!”

Maybe a change of policy: “I was just out of office, I wanted to raise money for whatever I might want to do next — and now that circumstances have changed, I’m donating that money to the fight against [insert a cause here].”

Maybe something intimate about the irrationality of fortune in American life: “My husband grew up fatherless and what we’d now consider poor. When I was little, my own family was part of the classic American middle class. President Obama, our current First Lady, for that matter Senator Sanders — none of us started with big family advantages, though we’re all grateful for the chances America provided. One of the realities of modern America is that if you become well known, people will pay you a lot of money to give speeches and to write books. I live in that reality — as my husband does, as the Obamas soon will, as Senator Sanders will whatever happens in this campaign — and I try never to forget how unusual it is, and to use all the advantage that America offers me to advance the causes that will mean more opportunity for everyone. And I challenge Senator Sanders or anyone listening here to name a case in which I’ve voted in a way at odds with my core values, just because someone is willing to pay a lot of money to hear what I have to say.”

Or something. Anything to show that she understands why the speeches grate on people but that she had a reason to give them nonetheless.

Also, her answer about speech transcripts has to be: “Sure! My heart goes out to whoever has to read them, but I’ve prided myself on always saying the same thing in public and in private. I’ll tell all the companies that as far as I’m concerned, what I said should be on the record.”

On Sanders’s side, whenever the discussion moved away from (a) economic injustice in America or (b) the Iraq-war vote 14 years ago, he seemed to be flailing. On the basis of this (overall very strong) debate performance with its comparatively very weak foreign-policy section, it would be easy to infer that he had started running more to advance an idea than actually to hold the office of President; that he’d surprised himself with his popularity and strength; and that now, when he realizes he’s being considered seriously as an all-fronts Presidential possibility, he is showing the areas where he needs more work.

Maybe that’s an unfair inference — and I say it being careful to note that his judgment was right (by my lights) and Clinton’s was wrong, when it came to the crucial choice about Iraq. But if he is competing now as a real potential president, it’s worth showing that he has more familiarity with the outside-our-borders part of a real president’s job.


To underscore a point on atmosphere: Hackles are rising in both the Sanders and the Clinton camps. But at least so far, this has been as respectful-toned a competitive primary campaign as you’re going to find.

Back in early 1980, it was none other than GOP candidate George H.W. Bush who blasted the pre-canonization Ronald Reagan for his “voodoo economics.” By the end of the year, they were running as partners and the closest of friends. Back in early 2008, the frostiness between the Clinton and Obama camps was so intense that it was hard to imagine a reconciliation. A year later, Hillary Clinton was a new President Obama’s Secretary of State; by 2012, Bill Clinton was Obama’s most effective re-election advocate; and this year Hillary Clinton is running as the extension of the Obama legacy, much as George H.W. Bush ended up doing with Reagan in 1988.

Things could worsen. But on the Democratic side they are notably amiable so far.