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Last night’s CNN Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn was both contentious and clarifying. It was contentious because the each candidate has had it with the other. Clinton is aggravated that Sanders has been surging and irritated that he keeps pointing out that she’s the big money, establishment candidate in the race. Sanders is tired of Clinton distorting his record, and being slippery about her own positions. But, contrary to the hand wringing of pundits, it isn’t the personal distemper that will make unity difficult in the fall. It is significant differences on policy, direction and strategy.

Big Apple Debate

Big Apple Debate—Robert Borosage

Contrary to the hand wringing of pundits, it isn’t the personal distemper that will make unity difficult in the fall. It is significant differences on policy, direction and strategy.

The Obama Card

Once more, Clinton made herself the candidate of continuity. She wrapped herself in President Obama again and again. She invoked him to defend taking big bucks from Wall Street and special interests. She cited his appointment of her to defend her foreign policy judgment. She used his energy plan to dodge questions about her promotion of fracking and refusal to embrace a carbon tax. She put the decision to go into Libya on his shoulders to deflect her responsibility for that calamity.

President Obama is popular among Democrats. And in New York, only registered Democrats can vote in the primary. (Independents, those registered with the Working Family Party, etc. won’t be able to vote). Clinton wants to firm up her lead among African-American voters. So tactically, the Obama card makes sense.

Strategically, however, it makes her the candidate for Obama’s third term – at a time when the country is looking for change. She’ll no doubt try to reset that image if she wins the nomination, but the imprint may be indelible.

The Strategic Divide

The debate repeatedly revealed the core divide between Clinton and Sanders: their theory of change and what’s possible. Sanders argues that the country needs fundamental change. Our economy is rigged; our politics is corrupted. So he lays out big, common sense, but fundamental reforms: national health care, a new trade regime, tuition free public college, a mobilization to meet the challenge of climate change, etc. The only way to get these, he argues, is run independent of the big money of the entrenched interests that have rigged the rules, and to mobilize a political uprising that provides a mandate, and forces the obstructionists and the timid to get out of the way.

Clinton, and most of the chattering classes, dismiss this as romantic, at best. She constantly defends her embrace of less bold reform as necessary because she wants to “get things done.” She supports building on Obama’s health care plan because it’s practical. She supports a $12 an hour minimum wage because she wants to “get things done.” She offers complicated, preemptively compromised reforms because they are more realistic.

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But in today’s Washington, the once pragmatic is utterly unrealistic. Clinton’s program isn’t much different from Obama’s. But the Republican Congress obstructs any progress on Obama’s agenda. They don’t favor a $12 minimum wage over a $15 one, they won’t allow a vote on raising the wage at all. Clinton suggests that she’ll be more effective because she’s prepared to schmooze with politicians, drink them under the table, meeting with them constantly and do whatever is needed to get things done. She’ll have support of big interests that have financed her campaign. This is essentially a plea to go back to politics as we once knew it.

There are two problems with that. Even if we could go back to the old politics, it won’t get us where we need to go. Without fundamental change – change of the very things the old order put in place and defends with a vengeance – most Americans will continue to struggle. And, the Right that now controls the Republican Congress isn’t playing by the old rules. Clinton is as loathed by the Right as Obama is. And there is no reason to think that she’ll have the kind of sweeping victory needed to sober the Republican obstructionists. Sanders argument may be far-fetched, but it is more realistic than Clinton’s business as usual notion. (And of course the things that the Clinton might find agreement on — corporate trade deals, austerity, cutting Medicare and Social Security as part of a “grand bargain,” tax giveaways to corporations – would only make things worse.)

Driving the Debate

Populism – and populist movements – drive this debate, largely because of the Sanders candidacy. Clinton now believes she must embrace breaking up the big banks, defeating the TPP trade deal she once described as the “gold standard,” a $15 minimum wage, lifting the Social Security cap and more. She carefully hedges her statements, making her commitments hazy much to Sanders’ irritation. But she’s moved to meet the temper of the time.

The Foreign Policy Vacuum

Foreign policy got a bit more attention in this debate. Sanders continued his attack on Clinton’s judgment because of the vote on Iraq, but expanded that to her responsibility for Libya. He took a relatively courageous position on Israel that Clinton chose not to join. He stood by his call for demanding the allies pay their fair share for NATO, which Clinton echoed.

But once more, Clinton’s record of supporting failed interventions didn’t come out. It isn’t just Iraq. She championed the coup in Honduras, the intervention in Libya, going after Assad in Syria, the surge in Afghanistan, the meddling in Ukraine. At the debate last night, she put forth a chilling argument about a “more aggressive” Russia, suggesting that it wanted to “rewrite the map of Europe.”

Sanders has relentlessly focused on his core message and agenda. He hasn’t wanted to let debates on foreign policy or other issues distract from it. And he’s looked less comfortable on those issues than on domestic policy. But presidents now have a virtually free hand on foreign policy. And while Clinton clearly will be “prepared from day one,” the alarming question of prepared for what must be probed.

Robert Borosage

Robert Borosage
Campaign for America's Future