Sanders goes to Wisconsin.

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Re-Re-Re-Debating Begins to Test Clinton and Sanders

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 and Bernie Sanders shared a stage Thursday night for the third time in eight days. Their skills are being tested: The same old talking points are growing stale to those of us who watch every one of these things, but the campaigns know that new people are tuning in all the time. With every approaching primary and caucus, a new crop of voters is paying attention. Both candidates are good enough politicians that they manage to address both the new and the returning viewers.

Sanders has improved over the course of the campaign, and easily handles himself as if he belongs on the stage. The performance gap evident in the early debates has narrowed considerably. Still, he goes through his greatest hits each time. He repeated once again his complaints about a "rigged" economy and millionaires and billionaires, and bragged as usual about his small donors.

He repeated his foreign policy-agenda, which pretty much comes down to repeating over and over again that he voted against the Iraq War while Clinton voted for it. His only real interests in foreign policy show up when he drifts into long-forgotten causes of the U.S. left. Tonight he had a long riff bashing Henry Kissinger over Cambodia, a roundabout way of criticizing Clinton for taking foreign-policy advice from him. It's not that he's wrong (on Kissinger and Cambodia I think he's entirely correct). It's just that it's striking how much that, or the U.S.-backed coup in Iran in 1953, seem far more animating to him than anything about the challenges of U.S. foreign policy in 2017. 

Perhaps the most telling question during the foreign-policy section was one asking Sanders to name leaders he admired. He began with Franklin Roosevelt -- but then talked for a long time about Roosevelt's domestic achievements, largely neglecting foreign policy and World War II. Also telling was his mention of Winston Churchill as a foreign leader whose wartime leadership he admired. It was an echo of Hillary Clinton's answer on Abraham Lincoln and Reconstruction in an earlier debate; I suspect more recently educated people, or those who pay closer attention to world affairs, would have shied away from admiring Churchill during a Democratic debate.

Sanders is improving as a performer, but he made some missteps in this two-person debate. He's a shouter. It sort of works when he's shouting toward the audience. But at least once on Thursday night he was looking straight at Clinton while shouting, and I wondered whether that would strike many Democratic voters as condescending. A couple of his attack lines may have had the same effect, sounding just a bit too dismissive. 

Clinton was fairly flat over the first half hour, not quite as sharp as usual. As things warmed up, she dialed up the intensity and gave her usual solid performance. As many have said, her strategic problem in these debates is a tricky one. Sanders is offering a revolution that promises to solve everything; she's offering the hard work of regular politics. Constantly explaining that they share goals and that she's more realistic about what can be achieved is hardly an inspirational message, even if it's true.

She clings as close as possible to Barack Obama, who remains very popular among Democratic voters. It's effective for the primary season. But she hardly needs to hide behind the president. She continues to sound far more experienced and expert in government and public affairs than anyone else running in either party. That's not to say none of them have relevant expertise: Sanders on veterans, or Marco Rubio on immigration, or John Kasich on the budget. But Clinton is the only one who demonstrates mastery in so many policy areas. Of course, whether that's what voters are looking for is another question, as is whether her positions on public policy are popular. 

The only real question on the Democratic side is whether there's a large bloc of voters in each state that, when attuned to the campaigns, will flip from moderate support of Hillary Clinton to voting for Bernie Sanders, even while still liking Clinton. Voters tuning in for the first time on Thursday night received a fair sample of what's ahead. Sanders can only hope that a chunk of them are gettable.

  1. It sounded particularly off to me after Sanders had just finished bashing Henry Kissinger, who for all his faults can't touch Churchill when it comes to imperialism and responsibility for ethnic-based violence. Granted, Sanders was talking about World War II, but still.

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

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