By Robert A. Vella

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met in Milwaukee, Wisconsin last night for the sixth Democratic Party debate of the 2016 election campaign.  Martin O’Malley dropped out of the race earlier this month.  PBS journalists Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff were the moderators.

This debate was the first to showcase a distinct contrast between the remaining candidates with respect to political style and their immediate strategic goals:  Clinton, the determined pragmatic tactician versus Sanders, the inspirational ideological insurgent.  And, with the surprisingly strong performance by Sanders in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, it was quite apparent what the goals of each were going into this debate.  For Sanders, it was more of the same – keep hammering his progressive message against the structural inequalities which are dividing the nation along economic, political, cultural, and ethnic lines.  For the somewhat besieged Clinton, the goal was to cleverly and subtly knock down her upstart challenger without showing any overt hostility.

Although the debate started off rather amicably, it later turned into a rhetorical slugfest.  There were three topics which generated several sharply pointed zingers, and one topic that resulted in a genuine knockdown.

Campaign Financing

Sanders again put Clinton on the defensive regarding the egregious and corrupting problem of money in politics.  He cited two billionaires (George Soros and Donald Sussman) who had contributed about $10 million to her super-pac (Priorities USA Action), and raised the issue of a quid pro quo relationship.  Clinton said that the super-pac was created for President Obama and that she had no role in its decision to support her candidacy.  She also boasted of her other 750,000 donors many of whom made small monetary contributions.  Sanders replied with this stinging rebuke:

“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people. People aren’t dumb. Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it. They want to throw money around.”

Loyalty to President Obama

Aware that President Obama remains very popular with Democratic Party activists, Clinton directly attacked Sanders for not being loyal to him.  Here’s the exchange from VoxPBS Democratic debate transcript: 5 key moments:

Clinton: Today Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he’s called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyer’s remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy.

And I just couldn’t agree, disagree more with those kinds of comments. You know, from my perspective maybe because I understand what President Obama inherited – not only the worst financial crisis but the antipathy of the Republicans in Congress. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for being a president and sending us into the future.

And it is the kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Sen. Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.

Sanders: Madam Secretary, that is a low blow. I have worked with President Obama for the last seven years. When President Obama came into office we were losing 800,000 jobs a month. 800,000 jobs a month.

We were in a 1.4 trillion dollar deficit and the world’s financial system is on the verge of collapse. As a result of his efforts and the efforts of Joe Biden against unprecedented, I was there, unprecedented Republican obstructionism, we have made enormous progress.

But you know what? Last I heard we lived in a democratic society. Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president including a president who has done such an extraordinary job. So I have voiced criticism. Maybe you haven’t. I have.

Sanders concluded by refreshing Clinton’s memory:

“You ran against Barack Obama [in 2008], not me.”

Foreign Policy

The candidates’ disagreement over war and other areas of U.S. foreign policy couldn’t have been more stark.  Sanders severely criticized America’s short-sided thinking which resulted in historic long-term failures such as its involvement in the overthrow of the sovereign governments in Iran (1953) and Iraq (2003).  Curiously, Clinton defended that short-term approach by suggesting no cause-and-effect relationship between events separated by decades.  This pronounced philosophical disagreement came to a head over Clinton seeking advice from former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger who has been widely seen as a warmonger:

Sanders: Where the secretary and I have a very profound difference, in the last debate and I believe in her book – very good book, by the way – in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger.

Now I find it kind of amazing. Because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.

I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.

I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. And in fact, Kissinger’s actions in Cambodia, when the United States bombed that country, over — through Prince Sihanouk, created the instability for Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to come in who then butchered some 3 million innocent people — one of the worst genocides in the history of the world.

So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.

Moderator: Secretary Clinton.

Clinton: Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy and we have yet to know who that is.

Sanders: Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure.

Clinton: That’s fine. I listen to a wide variety of voices. That have expertise in various areas. I think it is fair to say whatever the complaints that you want to make about him are, that with respect to China, one of the most challenging relationships we have, his opening up China and his ongoing relationship with the leaders of China is an incredibly useful relationship for the United States of America. So if we want to pick and choose — and I certainly do — people I listen to, people I don’t listen to, people I listen to for certain areas, then I think we have to be fair and look at the entire world because it is a big, complicated world out there.

Sanders: It is.

Clinton: Yes, people we may disagree with on a number of things, may have some insight, may have some relationships that are important for the president to understand in order to best protect the United States.

Sanders: I find a very different historical perspective here. Kissinger was one of those people during the Vietnam era who talked about the domino theory, not everybody remembers that. You do, I do. The domino theory.

You know, as Vietnam goes, China, da, da, da. That is what he talked about.

The great threat of China. And then after the war, this is the guy who, in fact, yes, you are right, he opened up relations with China. And now pushed various type of trade agreements resulting in American workers losing their jobs as corporations moved to China, the terrible authoritarian dictatorship he warned us about, now he is urging companies to shut down and move to China. Not my kind of guy.

From my personal perspective, Hillary Clinton represents geopolitical interests which are decidedly pro-Israel – in addition to being pro-capitalism – and, as a consequence, are more inclined to employ U.S. military force in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The knockdown moment came in a discussion about the problem of institutional racism and mass incarceration.  Sanders linked these to America’s neoliberal economic policies which stripped the middle class of well-paying jobs through the corporatist practices of outsourcing and the offshoring of manufacturing.  Clinton completely ignored the free-trade issue, and instead attempted to deflect the cause towards cultural idiosyncrasies.  Her argument, though partially valid, will not resonate among the party’s progressive base.

As a final note, I’m wondering what the hell happened to PBS?  Their news department was once the envy of journalists everywhere.  Last night, their moderators performed like toned-down versions of Fox News propagandists.  What a disgrace.

4 thoughts on “Contrasting styles and goals in 6th Democratic Party presidential debate, with zingers and low blows

  1. The three PBS commentators that followed the debate also seemed a bit biased in their interpretations. In fact, the entire evening–the moderators, the audience, and the reviewers seemed biased. With online polls giving Sanders a debate win by huge margins, it appears that the DNC is coming dangerously close to loosing its credibility with its own members.


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