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 Politico, who 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.