Let’s give a hand to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. After all we’ve been through with the Republicans, it’s nice to hear presidential candidates go at each other’s throat while they’re talking about where they stood on immigration issues in 2007.
This was Wednesday’s Democratic debate — the second one in a week, not counting the back-to-back town halls in between. People, do you remember when we used to complain that there weren’t going to be enough debates? Ah yes, long ago. Dinosaurs roamed the earth and Marco Rubio was a hot ticket.
Clinton held up well, given that her first three questions involved why she lost the Michigan primary, her emails and whether she’d drop out if she was indicted. (“Oh, for goodness — that is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question.”) It was a tough evening. Sanders accused Clinton of cruelty to Honduran children. She claimed he had sided with the Minutemen.
Since the debate was on Univision, there was a strong emphasis on immigration, which provided a kind of mirror image of the Republican debates. Clinton and Sanders bickered long and hard about who had been less in favor of deportation, going back more than a decade. (“Madam secretary, I will match my record against yours any day of the week!”)
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In truth, immigration is not an issue that actually separates these two people. The real gulf is between the grand vision and the practical plan. Sanders thinks he can provide free public college tuition and Medicare-like health coverage for all. “My dad used to say, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,’ ” Clinton rejoined.
And then there’s the auto industry bailout. One of the biggest moments in the Democrats’ Week of Endless Debates came Sunday when Clinton caught Sanders off guard by accusing him — in Michigan! — of refusing to support Detroit during the economic crisis.
“He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry,” Clinton claimed while Sanders looked stunned.
What followed was the most quoted moment of the encounter:
Sanders: “If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy — ”
Clinton: “You know — ”
Sanders: “Excuse me, I’m talking.”
It’s certainly a tribute to the general decorum with which the Democrats have conducted themselves that this was enough to draw a gasp from the crowd. The bar is so high on the Republican side that to get a real response one of the candidates would have had to hit the other with a hammer.
But let’s look at the bailout issue for a minute. Sanders did vote for a bill to lend money to the auto industry. But it got blocked in the Senate. Then during the stupendously complex end-of-the-Bush-administration negotiations, the bailout got mooshed into a huge, messy bill that did indeed involve helping Wall Street. When the only choices were nothing or a big, unappetizing legislative stew, he refused to bite.
That pretty much sums up his career in Congress. Sanders stood up for his principles, but he didn’t play any real role. At one point he offered an amendment to raise taxes on high-income individuals, which was basically ignored. He was marvelous, but symbolically marvelous.
He was in no way like Ted Cruz, who just tries to get attention by stopping things. Nobody hates Bernie Sanders. But he’s a maverick legislator, a man without a party. That’s a way, way different kind of life than being the person who has to run the country.
“You have to make hard choices when you’re in positions of responsibility,” Clinton said.
Clinton is a stupendous debater, and she’s developed smooth and sensible-sounding answers to sticky matters like the State Department emails and Benghazi. But she still hasn’t been able to handle Sanders’ attacks on her $225,000 speeches to finance industry insiders. She shrugs and says she’ll release the transcripts when “everybody else does,” which generally involves mentioning that President Barack Obama “took a lot of money from Wall Street.”
“I don’t have any comment,” she said when she was questioned earlier in the week about campaign donations. “I don’t know that. I don’t believe that there is any reason to be concerned about it.”
This is the stuff that makes Democrats want to send a message. Clinton is by far the best qualified candidate for president. But at this point in the campaign, you can understand why some people feel that voting for her against Sanders is like rewarding Washington for its worst behavior.
In the end, Clinton is the one who knows how to make the system work. But she just has to be clearer on how she can work against the system.