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Listen to Clinton's Promises in the Debate

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Hillary Clinton has the Democratic presidential nomination more or less wrapped up. So why should anyone watch the Democratic debate tonight?  

That's easy. Politics is about more than eventual election results.

Nominations are how parties define themselves. This presents two challenges for the party actors who have the most influence over who is nominated. First, they need to make sure a candidate they trust wins. Second, they have to bind that candidate as closely as possible to the party's agenda.

For their part, the candidates have strong incentives to keep their mouths shut about their positions on specific issues. Those who have a serious chance at getting their party's nomination want to be able to take positions in the general election that appeal to swing voters, and to do this without being accused of flip-flopping. And if these contenders look ahead to governing, they want to leave themselves as open as possible to cut deals and make bargains as they see fit. 

Debates aren't the only way parties try to get candidates to promise publicly to act a certain way as president, but they are a good method. The politicians can't control the questions they will be asked, and ducking them entirely looks bad. It also helps that their rivals are on the stage because most of them represent particular party groups and they'll bring up other issues a candidate wants to evade. If there had been no debate on her schedule, it's possible Clinton might still be avoiding a position on trade deals and financial-industry reform, two issues that engaged Democrats care a lot about. 

Politicians generally try to keep their promises. Of course, they sometimes fail. Maybe they don't have the means to succeed, or conditions change, or sometimes they just decide they can't be bound by those pledges. But breaking promises comes at a price, so pushing a candidate to make them gives the party better leverage to prevent politicians from going off on their own.

  1. No candidate with Clinton's level of support from party actors -- the politicians, campaign and governing professionals, formal party staff and officials,  donors and activists, party-aligned interest groups and the party press who care the most about the party and work hard to affect its actions -- has lost a nomination in the last 35 or more years. 

  2. It isn't the only method. Most candidates (Donald Trump  is the big exception) have campaign organizations staffed by people with strong ties to the party network; the winning candidate's administration will include governing professionals similarly linked to the party. Those people tend to know what the party wants (because they're part of it), and will expect their boss to stick with its agenda.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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Jonathan Bernstein at

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