Debate does little to stop Bernie’s media-fueled momentum

Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.
Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There are few story lines the media love more than “Clinton is in trouble.” Just saying it out loud brings back warm, gauzy memories of Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and Whitewater, of Benghazi and private email servers.

So I suspect there was almost nothing that could have happened at Sunday night’s Democratic debate to change the narrative that Bernie Sanders is surging and Hillary Clinton is hanging on for dear life.

None responded to the moment more predictably than Glenn Thrush of Politicowho opens by writing that Clinton’s attacks on Sanders “reinforced his characterization of her as an establishment politician so desperate she’d say anything to win,” and that the Vermont senator represents “an existential threat” to her candidacy.

The Washington Post’s lead story on the debate, by Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker, offers a calmer version of the same idea, with phrases such as “she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch” and a reference to “the newly potent threat Sanders poses to Clinton in her second White House run.” For good measure, the Post’s Chris Cillizza pronounces Bernie a winner and Hillary a loser.

In fact, those of us who watched—and it’s not likely there were many of us given that it took place in the middle of a holiday weekend—saw nothing all that dramatic.

Sanders, as usual, shouted and did a decent job of getting his points across. Clinton, as usual, was in command of the issues, though there’s no doubt she went after Sanders far more than in the previous three debates. Martin O’Malley, as usual, was there.

My own sense was that this was Clinton’s weakest performance, but still generally fine. I thought her worst moment was her closing remarks about sending a campaign aide to Flint, Michigan, to look into the drinking-water crisis. Why didn’t she go there herself? But I’ve seen plenty of commentary to the contrary. For instance, Paul Volpe and Quynhanh Do of The New York Times call it “her best moment of the night.”

But because the prospective voters who did not watch are going to depend on the media to tell them what happened, the takeaway is going to be that Clinton failed to stop Sanders’s momentum. That’s not wrong, just simplistic.

On the issues, I thought Clinton bested Sanders on guns, health care, and foreign policy, whereas Sanders was better on Wall Street and campaign-finance reform.

Clinton’s argument against Sanders’s newly released health-care proposal, which calls for a single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance (see Jonathan Cohn at The Huffington Post for details), isn’t really fair.

No, Sanders would not scrap the Affordable Care Act. But even liberal Democrats inclined to support single-payer are sure to recall what a horrendous slog it was to get the ACA passed. My guess is they’re disinclined to go back for another round.

“If Democrats couldn’t pass single-payer with a Senate supermajority, how would Sanders do it with a Republican House and, at best, a narrow Senate edge?” asks David A. Graham at The Atlantic. “She [Clinton] knows the limitations of health-care politics better than almost anyone.”

Though it might not have been immediately evident, Sanders may have seriously wounded himself with his answers on foreign policy. Despite offering some unconvincing caveats, he sounded like he’s all but ready to emulate Ronald Reagan and send a cake to the Iranian mullahs. Twice Sanders said the United States should work with Iran, to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power and to defeat ISIS. Let’s roll the tape:

But I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.

But the immediate task is to bring all interests together who want to destroy ISIS, including Russia, including Iran, including our Muslim allies to make that the major priority.

I have to agree with Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who says of Sanders that “it’s blindingly apparent that not only does he not understand foreign policy and national security, he simply doesn’t care to know more.”

NBC News moderators Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell did a good job of keeping things on track and covering a wide range of issues. But when Mitchell pressed Sanders on whether he would support tax increases, I would have liked to see a disclosure that she’s married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

And, finally, some counterintuitive polling wisdom from Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver. His analysis of multiple polls shows that Clinton has an 81 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and a 57 percent chance of winning the New Hampshire primary (where, as this Real Clear Politics compilation shows, Sanders is widely believed to be ahead) on February 9.

If Clinton takes both Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the Democratic nomination will be over.

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Clinton stumbles as Paris changes the terms of debate

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was such a charged moment that I almost expected to see a split screen. On one side: the still-unfolding horror in Paris. On the other: the three Democratic candidates for president talking about how the United States should respond.

CBS News didn’t go that far, though it did rearrange the format to move questions about national security and terrorism to the beginning of Saturday night’s two-hour debate. Bernie Sanders was reportedly none too happy about it, but it’s hard to understand why. He more than held his own with Hillary Clinton, matching her with his command of the details, reminding everyone that she voted for the war in Iraq, and explaining that there’s a clear link between terrorism and climate change. That last bit may cause some head-scratching, but in fact it reflects the thinking of Defense Department experts.

Clinton’s performance was adequate for the most part, but she was not as stellar as she was in the first debate, a triumph that re-energized her campaign. She was strong on the details, but she was also relatively humorless and charmless. She also had two moments that reflected poorly on her political judgment. The first of those two moments was also the more important, since it may make some question whether they really want her to be answering the phone at 3 a.m.

Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton whether she agreed with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that “the attack in Paris showed we are at war with radical Islam.” A simple “yes” would have sufficed, and I’m surprised she wasn’t quick enough on her feet to realize it. Instead, she proceeded to head down a tangled syntactical path, arguing that we are not at war with Islam (that wasn’t the question), praising George W. Bush for making a clear distinction between Muslims and terrorists (OK, good point), and saying she preferred terms like “violent extremism.” (As usual, I am relying on a transcript published by The Washington Post.)

It wasn’t a terrible answer so much as it was overly complicated and somewhat tone-deaf. Just Google “Hillary Clinton” and “radical Islam” and you’ll see that the right is already in a high state of excitation. Is this a huge deal? Probably not. But it seemed to me that she handed an issue to her opponents for no good reason.

The other Clinton low point came in response to an arm-waving tirade by Sanders about her close relationship with Wall Street. It was actually pretty tough stuff from Bernie, including as it did a suggestion that she does favors for the financial sector in return for campaign contributions. “Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?” asked Sanders. “You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

Clinton’s response was to play the gender card and to wrap herself in the flag of 9/11. “You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small,” she said. “And I’m very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.” Then came this doozy:

So, I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

It was so brazen that debate panelist Nancy Cordes later hit Clinton with an observation from someone on Twitter who said, “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”

https://twitter.com/AndyGrewal/status/665727759168081920?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

(It occurs to me that I’m 650 words into this and I haven’t mentioned the third candidate, Martin O’Malley. He just didn’t seem to be a factor. Compared to Sanders and Clinton, he comes across as inexperienced and unprepared. And I finally figured out what his earnest, wooden speaking style reminds me of: the official response to the State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.)

Most of the debate was devoted to domestic issues. No new ground was broken. Sanders is still appalled by “millionaires and billionaires.” All three support raising the minimum wage, although Clinton — there she goes again — gave a complicated answer that left me wondering exactly where she stands.

But given that the world is still dealing with the shock of the Paris attacks, let me return to foreign policy, an area that’s a real weakness for both parties.

International affairs should be a strength for Clinton, who is, after all, a former secretary of state. But liberals don’t trust her because of her support for the war in Iraq, and the right’s endless investigation into the Benghazi incident has undermined her reputation for competence and contributed to the longstanding perception that she’s not trustworthy. And I doubt many prospective voters see Sanders or O’Malley as a plausible commander-in-chief.

On the Republican side, it’s a whole lot worse. The hateful immigrant-bashing rhetoric of Donald Trump is the most visible (and audible) manifestation of the Republicans’ problems in dealing with the world at large. Marco Rubio is callow and inexperienced. Who knows what’s floating around inside Ben Carson’s head? Jeb Bush was rocked by Politico Magazine story over the weekend showing (as if we didn’t already know it) that no, his brother most definitely did not keep us safe. Maybe Lindsey Graham, a consistent exponent of John McCain-style aggression, is finally about to have his day.

At the moment we can’t guess how the Paris attacks will affect the presidential race. I was struck by the willingness of all three Democrats to continue accepting Syrian refugees — a humane and proper stance, but one likely to prove unpopular, especially since one of the terrorists appears to have entered Europe by pretending to be a refugee. Will we commit a significant number of American troops to the war against ISIS? Will we be able to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place here?

Given those difficult issues, it could be that the foreign-policy focus of Saturday night’s was premature. The stakes are likely to be much higher in the weeks and months ahead.

Olympia Snowe, a motorcycle rally and me

One of the more fun things I got to do during my years at the Boston Phoenix was drive to Augusta one weekend in 1999 to meet Maine’s senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, at a motorcycle rally. I started thinking about that story following Snowe’s announcement that she won’t seek re-election.

My article, by the way, appeared in the debut issue of the Portland Phoenix, which is still going strong more than a dozen years later. When you visit Portland (one of my favorite cities), you should be sure to pick up a copy.

Snowe’s career harks back to a time when there was such a thing as liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Nonideological partisan politics had its shortcomings, but it did tend to minimize the gridlock and enmity that characterizes the national dialogue today.

Snowe’s announcement will also reduce the ranks of moderate New England Republican senators to just two: Collins and Scott Brown of Massachusetts. And that’s assuming Brown wins re-election this November against his Democratic challenger, Elizabeth Warren.

Rewarding those they despise the most

If the polls and the pundits are to be believed, voters nationwide are about to deliver a stinging rebuke to our most popular elected official by casting their ballots in favor of our most despised political class. No, I’m not making this up. And it really calls into question what people are thinking, given that they appear poised to vote Republican on Tuesday.

Now, who is the most popular elected official? That would be the much-maligned President Obama, whose job-approval ratings are in rough shape, but who, as we shall see, stands head and shoulders above Congress. Take a look at this, and you’ll see that, in recent polls, Obama’s job approval rating is almost evenly divided between positive and negative.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll shows that 45 percent of respondents approve of the president’s performance and 52 percent disapprove. That seems to be in line with other polls I’ve seen. Yet some polls actually reverse those numbers in Obama’s favor. For instance, this Newsweek poll finds that 54 percent approve of Obama’s job performance and 40 percent disapprove. That does not sound like a president who’s down for the count.

Obama’s numbers are not only much better than those of Congress, but the congressional numbers break down in a way that is favorable to him. The public, according to surveys, despises Congress — but it loathes the Democrats slightly less than the Republicans.

Just one out of many examples: A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that the public gives Democratic members of Congress a 36 percent positive/61 percent negative job-approval rating. The same poll shows that respondents gave Republican members of Congress a 30 percent favorable rating and a 67 percent unfavorable assessment.

You might find a few exceptions, but the emphasis would be on “few.” I’ve been following these numbers off and on since Obama’s inauguration, and congressional Republicans have consistently come in last in the three-way race for job approval.

How to explain the likelihood that the Republicans will make huge gains on Capitol Hill next week? I’m not sure it can be explained. For instance, today’s New York Times reports the results of a poll it conducted with CBS News that shows next Tuesday will be a huge day for the GOP. Yet, bizarrely, the poll also finds:

[N]early 60 percent of Americans were optimistic about Mr. Obama’s next two years in office and nearly 70 percent said the economic slump is temporary. Half said the economy was where they expected it would be at this point, and less than 10 percent blamed the current administration for the state of the economy, leaving the onus on former President George W. Bush and Wall Street.

Those findings are everything Obama and congressional Democrats could hope for. The most you can say, though, is that voters will give the president an opportunity to dig out from the rubble they are about to dump on him next Tuesday. Strange days indeed.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.