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2 winners and 3 losers of Thursday's Democratic primary debate

Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Spar At Democratic Debate In Brooklyn
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Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

The viciousness of the 2016 Democratic primary is sometimes exaggerated. Yes, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have traded some personal attacks, but anyone who remembers the Dick Gephardt/Howard Dean war of late 2003 knows that it can get much, much, worse.

That being said, Thursday night's CNN debate in Brooklyn took this cycle a bit closer to that level of venom. It was pointed and hostile in a way that no Hillary-Bernie matchup to date has been. Sanders's attacks — on Clinton's 1990s crime record, on her Goldman Sachs speeches, on her approach to fracking — weren't new, but they hit harder, and were phrased more bluntly, this time. He's criticized the Clinton administration's mass incarceration record before, but accusing Clinton of using "a racist term" was definitely new. And Clinton gave as good as she got, especially on Sanders's gun record and his implicit rejection of the Obama record.

We won't know who "really" won until poll results trickle in. But in the meantime, here's who ended the night better off than they started it — and who slipped.

Winner: Bernie Sanders

1989, the number, another summer…
Power to the people no delay, to make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Let's count down the things that went well for Bernie Sanders tonight:

  • Despite voting for the same infamous crime bill that Bill Clinton signed into law, Sanders won his exchange with Clinton by straightforwardly denouncing her use of the term "superpredators" as racist.
  • Despite having an objectively more lenient record on gun control than Clinton, he got the better of her by painting her argument that Vermont's loose gun laws exacerbate violence in New York as a ridiculous overreach.
  • Despite having recently been embarrassed by an interview that made him seem uninformed on financial reform, he forced Clinton to flail for minutes on end and fail to adequately defend her decision to take thousands of dollars in Goldman Sachs speaking fees.
  • Despite the relative obscurity of climate change as an issue so far, he successfully tacked to Clinton's left and hammered her for minutes on end for her support for fracking.
  • Despite Clinton's past insistence that she only supported a $12-an-hour minimum wage, he helped push her to switch positions and back a $15-an-hour minimum.

And on and on, and over and over again. The whole debate saw Clinton on defense and Sanders on offense. When she did attack, he deflected easily and went back to landing punches.

In terms of topics, the focus was consistently on economic justice, and when it wasn't, Sanders successfully spun it in his favor. Better than that, he spun it such that his standard economic attack lines still applied. He didn't just accuse Clinton of being weak on climate change — he accused her of being weak because she's in hock to billionaires and corporations, a natural extension of his existing narrative.

There was relatively little on topics where he's done more poorly in the past, like national security and immigration, and even on foreign policy, his discussion of Israel saw him looking more prepared and comfortable than in any foreign affairs exchange at any prior debate.

The race is at a funny point at the moment. Clinton has a nearly insurmountable lead in pledged delegates after having wiped out Sanders in the South. But Sanders continues to gain in national polls. That could lead to a strange situation where Sanders loses despite a late-going winning streak, and despite having convinced a plurality of Democrats nationwide to support him. We've never really seen anything like that before, and, literal win or literal loss, it'd be a huge accomplishment. Tonight's debate performance kept the momentum leading up to it going.

Winner: Fight for 15

Technocrats couldn't contain this one
A rally for a $15 minimum wage in Los Angeles on December 4, 2014.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Just three years ago, the idea of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was a fringe notion. I remember writing this piece critical of the proposal in June 2013, when the idea was on the far-left fringe of what was being discussed. President Obama was still pushing for $9 an hour; congressional Democrats were onto $10.10. But $15 just felt so clearly outside the Overton window, an increase far too large to be seriously contemplated.

Yet here we are. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle passed $15-an-hour minimums. California and New York state are on board now. A serious contender for the Democratic nomination introduced federal legislation to enact a $15 minimum nationwide — and his sole rival has now said she'd sign such a bill.

Hillary Clinton had mostly tried to avoid the $15-an-hour issue until this debate, offering sympathy for grassroots local Fight for 15 movements while supporting a more modest $12-an-hour minimum nationally. But tonight that came to an end, and she suggested she really does support a $15-an-hour minimum across America:

BLITZER: -- if a Democratic Congress put a $15 minimum wage bill on your desk, would you sign it?

CLINTON: Well, of course I would … I think setting the goal to get to $12 is the way to go, encouraging others to get to $15. But, of course, if we have a Democratic Congress, we will go to $15.

Of course, she denied this was a flip-flop, despite Sanders's efforts to get her to do so. But in a way, Sanders making a point out of the position change was just pouring salt in the wound. He — along with the grassroots Fight for 15 movement — had successfully convinced the living embodiment of establishment Democratic politics to sign into law a $15-an-hour national minimum wage.

Whether or not Sanders wins the race ultimately, that's a huge victory, and a huge, almost overnight shift in the consensus position of the Democratic Party.

Loser: Hillary Clinton

Like, more people are voting for you
Don't worry, you're winning winning.
Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Let's not lose sight of things: Clinton is clearly winning this election. She has 1,310 pledged delegates to Sanders's 1,094. Especially if she wins her home state of New York (one of the biggest remaining delegate prizes), it'll be very hard for him to catch up. She's won 2.4 million more votes than Sanders, leading 57 percent to 43 percent. She more than likely will be the Democratic nominee for president.

All of which makes events like Thursday's debate cringeworthy. There was a particularly bleak moment in the closing statements, after Sanders concluded, as the audience chanted, "Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" for a good 15 seconds as Clinton stood quiet, lightly smirking, waiting to speak. Here she is, in a state that elected her to the Senate twice, and she's very much not on her home turf. The crowd is definitely not with her. And she's on defense.

Most disturbingly, she was on defense even on issues where she should be dominating. The wrap on Sanders is that he can't cover issues outside of base economic matters. But he got the better of her on mass incarceration, on Israel, on climate change. Her previous strategy of pivoting to areas where Sanders is weaker doesn't appear to work anymore.

She also found herself giving up real ideological ground to Sanders, most notably by signaling support for a national $15-an-hour minimum wage. Viewers of the debate had the rare experience of watching a candidate move leftward in real time. That's certainly good for the left — but it certainly didn't do anything to dispel accounts of Clinton as opportunistic and rudderless.

She's probably not in real danger. It'd take a lot to shift things before Tuesday's New York primary, and even a drubbing as bad as this one likely won't do the trick. But even so, events like these set her up for an awkward spring, as her opponent gains momentum and support even as she's solidly winning. It delays her ability to enter general election mode, and creates continual pressure to move toward the Democratic base on stuff like the minimum wage that could wind up backfiring in November.

Loser: New Democrats

President Clinton speaks before the Democratic Leadership Council in 2000.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Roughly from Walter Mondale's landslide defeat in 1984 through to the end of Bill Clinton's presidency, a vocal faction of the Democratic Party led a successful effort to lead it rightward.

The "New Democrats" of the Democratic Leadership Council and New Democrat Network argued that the liberalism of Mondale and congressional Democrats was incapable of producing a governing coalition. It was too pacifist, interested in things like nuclear freezes rather than responding to Americans' hawkish sentiments; it was too weak on crime, insufficiently vigorous in pursuing tough incarceration and policing policies that played well with scared suburban voters; it was too left-wing, invested in old-school New Deal–type programs rather than engaging with the private sector.

Bill Clinton was this critique made flesh. The Democrats were too pacifist? Well, he conducted bombing raids in Sudan and Iraq and intervened twice in the Balkans. His post–Cold War peace dividend was modest. The Democrats were too soft on crime? Well, he executed a black man with an IQ of 70 who was so intellectually disabled he saved the pecan pie from his last meal "for later." He posed in front of black prisoners on Stone Mountain, Georgia, the site of a massive pro-slavery sculpture and the founding site of the 20th-century Ku Klux Klan. He railed against black teen "superpredators" and signed a harsh crime bill.

By 2000, the New Dems looked ascendant.

And then it all came crashing down.

In some ways, this was inevitable. The growing share of black and Latino voters in the electorate naturally shifted Democrats' coalition left by reducing the need to rely on Southern whites, whom Clinton and other New Dems were so adept at courting. Both parties' views on crime grew more lenient in light of the massive decline in crime rates in the 1990s. The Iraq War restored a deep skepticism about the use of force in both rank-and-file and elected Democrats.

But just going through the issues at tonight's debate, it's striking to imagine a DLCer from the '90s watching and wondering what his party had come to. Sanders was asked not if he was sufficiently tough on crime, but if his plans to let millions of convicted criminals out of prison would actually free as many felons as promised. Clinton was criticized not for being insufficiently pro-Israel, but for being insufficiently willing to assail the killing of Palestinian civilians. Twenty years after Clinton named former Goldman Sachs chief Robert Rubin as his Treasury secretary, so much as consorting with Goldman Sachs had become toxic.

The DLC itself dissolved in 2011. Its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, is still around but mostly ignored. The New Democrat movement was largely dead before this debate. But the event was nonetheless a potent reminder of just how far the centrists have fallen.

Loser: Liberal technocrats

Obama Nominates Alan Krueger To Head His Council Of Economic Advisors
Former CEA Chair Alan Krueger, one of the few prominent liberals to come out against a $15-an-hour minimum, with President Obama.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

One of the most striking things about the rise of the $15-an-hour minimum wage is how little opposition it's provoked from establishment liberals. While few Democratic economists in good standing would oppose the wage in general, or even mild increases to it, most are standard enough economists to think that there's some point at which the unemployment and price increases it produces are big enough to outweigh any gains.

More generally, Democratic wonks tend to pride themselves on an ability to rein in fantastical thinking in a way their Republican counterparts don't. When Republican presidential candidate promise outlandishly high economic growth rates as a result of their massive tax cuts, they usually get economist backup. But when Bernie Sanders touted a paper suggesting he'd achieve 5.3 percent growth, the Democratic economist establishment put him in his place.

That hasn't happened at a large scale on $15 an hour. Alan Krueger, Obama's former chief economist and one of the first to argue that small increases in the wage might not cost jobs, has come out against the idea. He writes, "$15 an hour is beyond international experience, and could well be counterproductive. Although some high-wage cities and states could probably absorb a $15-an-hour minimum wage with little or no job loss, it is far from clear that the same could be said for every state, city and town in the United States."

My sense from off-the-record conversations with left-leaning Democratic economists is that this is what most of them actually believe. Again and again and again, I've heard people — including ones significantly to the left of the Obama administration — express grave concern about the $15-an-hour figure, about the danger that this time we might be going too far.

Obviously, it's hard for me to prove this is a widespread sentiment relying entirely on anonymous comments, but you can read between the lines.

UMass Amherst's Arindrajit Dube, the leading economist arguing that minimum wage hikes don't necessarily cost jobs, told my colleague Tim Lee of $15 an hour, "If you're risk-averse, this would not be the scale at which to try things." At most he said the idea would "get us more evidence."

Dube's own preferred policy would set the minimum wage at half of each local area's median wage. That would suggest minimums as high as $13.51 an hour in the DC metro area, or as low as $8 in Arkansas and Mississippi, but nowhere does it spit out a $15-an-hour minimum.

Similarly, the Economic Policy Institute, the leading pro-labor think tank in DC, repeatedly advocates for a $12 minimum, not $15. It'll issue statements sympathetic to actually passed $15-an-hour laws, but it's not the focus of their prior research. Jared Bernstein, Joe Biden's former chief economist and perhaps the leftmost adviser in the Obama administration, has written sympathetically about $15 an hour, but emphasized, "As far as we can see, no one is proposing $15 tomorrow. All the proposals we know of phase in gradually over the course of numerous years."

The dynamic you see here is one where there's such overwhelming grassroots support for an idea that even policy elites who traditionally take it upon themselves to moderate and channel on-the-ground sentiment into more viable policy avenues aren't doing that. They're jumping on board and then talking to journalists like me off the record about their concerns, and about their concerns as to what happens if their misgivings were to become public.

That's the context in which to understand Clinton's decision to get on board with the $15-an-hour minimum wage. It's a clear sign that the traditional gatekeeper role center-left economists have played on issues like this is being eroded, and quickly.

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