The fifth 2016 Democratic presidential primary debate marked the first time Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton faced each other one on one.
The February 4 debate was also the first one after the Iowa caucuses, which saw Sanders and Clinton fight to a draw, and the last before the New Hampshire primary, where Sanders is expected to beat Clinton handily. It finds Clinton at perhaps her weakest moment in the campaign so far, with no clear victories to date, defeat imminent, and a growing and impassioned movement backing her opponent.
It'll take a few days for poll results to trickle in, which will provide the closest thing to an objective answer of who actually won the debate. But in the meantime, here are the candidates who ended the night better off than they started it — and the ones who slipped.
Winner: Bernie Sanders
No one is more on message than Bernie Sanders. No matter the context, no matter the topic under discussion, Sanders is uncannily good at changing the conversation to his preferred topics: inequality, the political power of banks, and the corrosive effect of corporate money on politics.
At times that can make him sound like he's missing the point. But when those are the actual topics under discussion, it makes him an incredibly disciplined, well-prepared debaters. And for at least the first half of the debate, the topics were all ones he was designed to do well on.
A huge chunk of the debate was devoted to discussing Wall Street reform, which gave Sanders a great opportunity not just to showcase his support for very ostentatiously tough anti–Wall Street regulations — like separating commercial and investment banking — but to bring up Clinton's longstanding ties to the financial industry, and especially her acceptance of $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
He was also given an extended platform to trumpet his single-payer health care plan, which, whatever problems it may have, is a more inspiring talking point than Clinton's "let's just not do health care again" position. The very nature of the discussion on domestic policy forced Clinton to acknowledge, without Sanders's help, that she's offering voters less.
"I also believe in affordable college," she said. "But I don't believe in free college because every expert that I have talked to says, look, how will you ever control the costs." That may be a sensible assessment of the policy problem, but it doesn't fare well next to Sanders's promises that we can too dramatically expand access to higher education.
Sanders also got multiple chances to disavow interest in non-substantive procedural controversies involving the Clinton campaign. He doesn't care about her emails, he reiterated, but he also pooh-poohed concerns about irregularities in the Iowa caucuses, which many online Sanders supporters have argued gave Clinton an unfair, narrow victory there.
Sanders sensibly pointed out that he only got a couple fewer delegates out of Iowa, and that who actually got first largely doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It bolstered his image as a different kind of politician, without patience for cable news mini controversies and an unerring focus on the actual big problems: inequality, stagnant wages, and the rich's domination of the political process.
Winner: Hillary Clinton
Okay, I know this sounds dumb, but hear me out. On some level, the Democratic primary process is now zero-sum, with any gains to Sanders hurting Clinton and vice versa. And that's true in a narrow sense. But both candidates gave very strong performances that emphasized their respective strengths. Regardless of who won in relative terms, both clearly succeeded in making the most compelling case for their respective candidacies.
For Clinton, that meant giving her strongest performance to date on foreign policy. She's still well to the right of the Democratic Party as a whole on these questions. But she also is actually well-versed in them, whereas Sanders's comments on foreign policy appear limited to a) praising the foreign policy achievements of the Obama administration, and b) hammering Clinton for her vote for the Iraq War.
The latter remains Clinton's biggest weakness. It's unclear why she can't simply say, "It was a huge mistake, I've rethought my views on the use of force and learned from my mistake," but in lieu of that kind of fully honest reckoning, her burn at Sanders — "A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS" — was rhetorically effective if not particularly reassuring to more dovish Democrats. It turned the conversation from being about her positions on the issue toward Sanders's near-total ignorance of it.
Reasonable people can differ on how important Sanders's disinterest in the issue is, but insofar as it matters, the fact that he appeared clearly out of his element wasn't particularly helpful. When Chuck Todd asked him why he hadn't laid out his foreign policy philosophy, Sanders didn't reply, "Because that's an empty campaign season ritual that doesn't actually matter." He claimed a mostly unrelated speech about socialism counted.
That's really weak sauce when trying to defend your credentials against a former secretary of state, who, for better or worse was pretty clear about what she'd do about ISIS: "I am against American combat troops being in Syria and Iraq. I support special forces and the air campaign." Sanders failed to lay out any way in which his ISIS policy would differ from hers, and his comments on Iran were mostly devoted to insisting they didn't disagree on how to deal with the country.
Sanders clearly won on domestic policy. Clinton clearly won on foreign policy. And both gave excellent performances that offered compelling substantive grounds for supporting them. It feels perverse to label either a loser.
Loser: Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Tonight's debate wasn't even supposed to happen. It was not on the original list of six approved by the Democratic National Committee and its chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But then NBC and the Union Leader — New Hampshire's biggest newspaper — agreed to hold one even without the DNC's go-ahead, Clinton signed on, and Sanders signed on and got Clinton to commit to three additional debates. And so it was that a Democratic debate was scheduled for 9 o'clock on a Thursday night ahead of the earliest primary, perhaps the best possible time for maximum viewership.
That was definitely not the strategy behind the DNC's pre-approved debate schedule. Recall that the last debate was held on the Sunday night before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While Wasserman Schultz insisted that it was timed to "maximize the opportunity for voters to see our candidates," basically no one believed her. Networks generally don't save their most promising shows for the night before a federal holiday. The intention was clearly to decrease viewership and — to be a bit cynical about it — limit Sanders's opportunities to damage Clinton.
Tonight's debate was evidence that failed. The demand for more debates was too high, and eventually both candidates gave in to it, making the DNC appear utterly feckless, with not even Clinton there to back it up. The party leadership has lost control of the debate process entirely, which is a loss both for the organization and for Wasserman Schultz's odds of continuing to lead it in the medium run.
Loser: Wall Street
There was a time, not so long ago, in which left parties — not just the Democrats but the British Labour Party as well — made conscious alliances with the financial sector. Banks were singled out from the rest of "big business" and provided a durable base of party funds, while Bill Clinton and Tony Blair in turn adopted remarkably finance-friendly deregulatory agendas.
It wasn't a straightforward quid pro quo (many Democrats thought banks were just less insidious than other companies on the merits), but it definitely resulted in a broad, bipartisan pro-bank consensus on both sides of the pond.
Those alliances were threatened by the 2008 financial crisis, and especially following the passage of Dodd-Frank in 2010, the financial sector has become more consciously right-wing, and the tilt of its donations has turned toward the Republicans. Partially because of a Democratic reorientation toward donations from the tech sector and Hollywood, and partially because of enduring outrage from the crisis, the Democratic Party has in turn become more stridently anti–Wall Street.
The financial sector's best hope of stopping this process was nominating Hillary Clinton. She literally represented Wall Street during her time as the senator from New York, and her core of economic advisers is centered on Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary and Goldman Sachs/Citigroup chairman. As recently as November, she was defending her pro–Wall Street votes by invoking 9/11.
But tonight, her defense was different. It wasn't, "Actually banks are good." It was, "Sure, I take their money, but I will still gut them like fish":
I called to end the loopholes that hedge fund managers enjoy. I called for a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau before it was created. I think the best evidence that the Wall Street people, at least know, where I stand and where I have always stood is because they are trying to beat me in this primary.
… We have a law. It was passed. It was signed by President Obama. It lays out a process that you go through to determine whether a systemic risk is posed. By the way, President Obama signed that, pushed it through, even though he took donations from Wall Street, because he's a responsible president.
Whether or not you buy her explanation for Republicans attempting to help Sanders — I think it's less that they're scared of her views and more that they think Sanders is hopeless in the general election — the message here is clear. To paraphrase Jesse Unruh, she can take Wall Street's money and still tell them to fuck themselves. And her comprehensive Wall Street reform plan suggests she has some credibility here.
If you were a financial executive watching tonight, you'd still leave less scared of Clinton than of Sanders. But you'd leave convinced that another Democratic administration will entail a world of hurt for Wall Street.
It's curious that Bernie Sanders is so completely apathetic about foreign policy, since it's arguably the issue where Clinton is most vulnerable. Sure, she's more experienced, and sure, she will all come across as more knowledgable, but she's also genuinely to the right of the Democratic Party as a whole when it comes to matters of war and peace.
There's space for a challenger to make the argument that Barack Obama made in 2008: She's too quick to go to war. The Libya intervention in 2011 was a mistake. So were her calls to intervene early against Bashar al-Assad in Syria. So was her hawkish rhetoric toward Iran, which arguably made life worse for Americans held there. She has clearly not learned the right lesson from Iraq, and she'd repeat her 2002 mistake by launching yet more ill-advised wars as commander in chief.
Sanders is not making this case. He's invoking the war vote, sure, but more as a thumb in Clinton's eye than as a pivot to explaining why a Sanders presidency would be different and less bellicose. That's largely because it probably wouldn't be that much less bellicose. Sanders's plans for ISIS and Afghanistan are basically identical to Clinton's. He supports the drone war.
If Wall Street was left without allies in the Democratic field tonight, then so were genuine doves. Lincoln Chafee, the only Democratic candidate to make a straightforwardly antiwar case, was treated as a punchline and dropped out early. And with two candidates left, doves are completely without a champion.