In the wake of Hillary Clinton‘s obvious victory in the first Democratic presidential debate, the Professional Left is in deep denial over Vermont Senator and Progressive Jesus Bernie Sanders‘ performance. Despite the near-unanimous consensus of political observers that Hillary won, Sanders fans insist that Bernie smoked the field, and that Hillary felt the Bern.
Distrusting a widespread mainstream media narrative is all well and good, as any Hillary Clinton supporter will gladly tell you, but what matters is the truth. While everyone has a right to their own opinion, the set of facts being put forward to support the claim that Bernie won the debate is deeply disturbing and contradictory, and Sanders is being done no favors by his admirers. Just as I would no sooner claim that Hillary won because Mark Halperin said so, liberals would ordinarily laugh me off the internet if I supported a claim of victory by citing a Frank Luntz focus group and a bunch of online polls and social media metrics.
Yet that’s exactly what’s going on with Bernie Sanders, and it’s not just his rabid camp followers doing it. Two leading progressive voices whom I deeply respect, Cenk Uygur and Chris Hayes, have joined the Sanders chorus:
I’m not just picking on Frank Luntz (although he is horrible), I thought all right-thinking liberals agreed that focus groups are garbage, and as anyone old enough to remember Ron Paul can tell you, so are online polls and money bombs. There hasn’t been a scientific poll taken on the results of this debate, but I’d argue that when it comes to determining a winner, those are garbage, too. It’s tough to measure substance, but one thing’s for sure: popularity ain’t the way to do it. That’s why determining a winner is so difficult, because it relies on the expertise of political observers whose expertise is easily dismissed.
Let’s set aside expertise, then, and focus on the arguments. On one side, we have ridiculous online polls, focus groups, and the Bernie money bomb. On the other side, we have the actual debate performance. Hillary, I think everyone would agree, was fairly flawless when it came to earning style points. She was relaxed, confident, and nimble, no more so than when she pulled off the nifty substantive parry of somehow turning her vote in support of the Iraq war into an opportunity to brag about her national security experience:
Well, I recall very well being on a debate stage, I think, about 25 times with then Senator Obama, debating this very issue. After the election, he asked me to become Secretary of State.
He valued my judgment, and I spent a lot of time with him in the Situation Room, going over some very difficult issues.
That was some serious Jedi mind trickery, and an opening that Bernie and company completely missed. She hit the style mark, and they missed the substance mark.
Substantively, Hillary took advantage of a Sanders misstep when she explained the value of limited capitalism, something Bernie should have done in his response, and should do next time:
And I don’t think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself. And I think what Senator Sanders is saying certainly makes sense in the terms of the inequality that we have.
But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America. And it’s our job to rein in the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequities we’re seeing in our economic system.
But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history.
If you don’t think Hillary won this point, then you’d better tell Bernie, because he conceded it in his followup. It should become part of his first response.
Sanders supporters are also blithely ignoring the beating he took on gun control. For example, Chris Hayes played an exchange on the subject, between Sanders and Clinton, that could easily be seen as a draw. Specifically, Sanders tried to reframe his support for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act as a common-sense shield against frivolous lawsuits (that’s what judges and juries are for), and made the excuse that he’s from a “rural state” (the PLCAA is a federal, not state, law).
What Hayes didn’t play was the part where Martin O’Malley crushed Sanders by explaining just what it is that law does. If you don’t believe me that O’Malley crushed him, maybe you’ll believe Bernie Sanders, who winds up agreeing with him:
O’Malley: Sandy and Lonnie Phillips are here from Colorado. And their daughter, Jessie, was one of those who lost their lives in that awful mass shooting in Aurora.
Now, to try to transform their grief, they went to court, where sometimes progress does happen when you file in court, but in this case, you want to talk about a — a rigged game, Senator? The game was rigged. A man had sold 4,000 rounds of military ammunition to this — this person that killed their daughter, riddled her body with five bullets, and he didn’t even ask where it was going.
And not only did their case get thrown out of court, they were slapped with $200,000 in court fees because of the way that the NRA gets its way in our Congress and we take a backseat. It’s time to stand up and pass comprehensive gun safety legislation as a nation.
Sanders: I think the governor gave a very good example about the weaknesses in that law and I think we have to take another look at it.
Bernie needs to have a better answer for that next time, especially if one of his opponents brings up the fact that it was Bernie’s law that defeated Rudy Giuliani‘s lawsuit against gun manufacturers. Maybe that’s a mistake he should identify, and promise to fix.
None of this is to say that Bernie did horribly in the debate. He scored the unquestionable moment of the night when he defended Hillary Clinton over the email story, which did help Hillary, but which helped him at least as much. Mark Halperin is pushing this line that Bernie “flubbed” what began as an attack on the distraction of her emails, but that’s obviously not what happened. If it was meant as an attack, then why would Bernie begin by saying “let me say something that may not be great politics?”
The crowd went wild, and it demonstrated that maybe Bernie really is above politics, especially since this was well after Hillary and O’Malley went after him on guns.
Alas, it also set Hillary up for one of her most crowd-pleasing moments, which was her response to Lincoln Chafee’s attempt to make hay out of the email story:
I like Bernie Sanders too, and I don’t like being in a position to pick him apart, but if someone doesn’t do it, then he won’t get any better. Elsewhere in the debate, he seemed unsure about foreign policy as it relates to Russia and Ukraine, and single-handedly gave alcohol poisoning to anyone who drew the word “billionaires” in their drinking game. Bernie hasn’t so much struck a chord with voters as he has a single note, and he ought to work on broadening his appeal. None of the candidates even mentioned the Voting Rights Act, for example, a key issue for the Obama coalition voters whom Bernie is trying to reach, and an opening that he badly missed.
Loyal supporters of any candidate can be fiercely immune to criticism, as Hillary Clinton’s supporters were when I suggested she acquiesce to the simple-minded demand that she “apologize” for the email story, but the candidates themselves need to have a more open mind than that. Hillary changed course, and it paid off. If you really want Bernie to succeed, you should be tweeting this story at him, not pounding enraged comments into your keyboard.
On that note, I’d also like to make one more little-reported observation about the debate. While Hillary was the overall winner, and Bernie owned the night’s biggest moment, it was Martin O’Malley who gained the most, whose position is most likely to significantly shift. Hillary and Bernie definitely pleased their respective supporters, but O’Malley got himself noticed, staying in the ring with the big kids during really substantive matters like the Syria no-fly zone, landing substantive blows on both frontrunners, and in his closing statement, generating more applause than any other candidate:
That doesn’t mean that O’Malley will suddenly become a factor in the race, but instead of there being a top tier of Sanders and Hillary and a no-tier of everyone else polling under the margin of error, O’Malley might create a legitimate second-tier of middle-single-digits. If Hillary Clinton’s supporters are smart, they’ll be tweeting her this article, and telling her to watch the O’Malley game films. She’s got five more of these to do, so even if O’Malley can’t dent Hillary in the polls, he can sure put a hurting on her at the podium.
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