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Here’s the Biggest Lesson Hillary Clinton Must Learn From Thursday Night’s Debate

Nixon/Kennedy brought presidential debates, for better or worse (mostly worse), into the television age, where style mostly eclipsed substance. In the social media age, these debates are increasingly decided in “moments,” where the stakes are raised thirty seconds at a time. There was one such moment at Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate that carries an important lesson for Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. It was one of the best moments of the debate for her, but a poor decision from months ago badly undermined it.

Senator Bernie Sanders was asked to substantiate the key point of his campaign against Hillary Clinton, the one complaint upon which he and his supporters base all their opposition to her on, and he couldn’t do it:

BASH: Senator Sanders, you have consistently criticized Secretary Clinton for accepting money from Wall Street. Can you name one decision that she made as senator that shows that he favored banks because of the money she received?

SANDERS: Sure. Sure. The obvious decision is when the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of wall street brought this country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Recession — the Great Depression of the ’30s, when millions of people lost their jobs, and their homes, and their life savings, the obvious response to that is that you’ve got a bunch of fraudulent operators and that they have got to be broken up.

That was my view way back, and I introduced legislation to do that. Now, Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech. So the problem response — the proper response in my view is we should break them up. And that’s what my legislation does.

CLINTON: Well, you can tell, Dana, he cannot come up with any example, because there is no example.

The smaller lesson here is to let the applause breathe, because this moment was a knockout punch to Sanders’ argument that Hillary just can’t be trusted because she refuses to unilaterally disarm against the Koch brothers. Ordinarily, this would have been the time Hillary could’ve started doing windmill punches and flying elbow drops on a woozy Sanders, but moments later, a poor decision by Hillary and her campaign from months ago allowed Sanders to get off the ropes, and undermined Hillary’s big score.

Dana Bash asked Hillary about those Wall Street speech transcripts, and Hillary ostentatiously did not answer, so Bash followed up again and again:

BASH: Senator Sanders, one second, please. Secretary Clinton, the question was about the transcripts of the speeches to Goldman Sachs. Why not release them?

CLINTON: I have said, look, there are certain — there are certain expectations when you run for president. This is a new one. And I’ve said, if everybody agrees to do it — because there are speeches for money on the other side. I know that. But I will tell you this, there is — there is a long-standing expectation that everybody running release their tax returns, and you can go — you can go to my website and see eight years of tax returns. And I’ve released 30 years of tax returns. And I think every candidate, including Senator Sanders and Donald Trump, should do the same.

BASH: Secretary Clinton, we’re going to get to the tax returns later, but just to put a button on this, you’re running now for the Democratic nomination.

CLINTON: Right.

BASH: And it is your Democratic opponent and many Democratic voters who want to see those transcripts. It’s not about the Republicans…

CLINTON: You know, let’s set the same standard for everybody. When everybody does it, OK, I will do it, but let’s set and expect the same standard on tax returns. Everybody does it, and then we move forward.

The decision not to just release the transcripts when they first became an issue was an incredibly stupid one that is only compounded by the awfulness of Hillary’s stated reason for not doing so. It”s like OJ Simpson demanding that everyone in the courtroom try on the gloves. Nobody cares what Republicans said in their paid speeches because they say most of their horrible things out loud and in public, and Bernie’s paid speeches to the Noam Chomsky Book and Crochet Club are of limited interest. Fair or not, there is a powerful narrative around Hillary that she is suspect when it comes to Wall Street, and pathologically secretive, and fair or not, this only reinforces those narratives.

If Hillary had released those transcripts in January, they’d have gotten a nice five-day ride in the news cycle, become a bullet in Bernie’s stump speech, and that’d be it. Unless there’s a speech in which she’s complimenting the caterer on the Fetus Tartare, nothing in those transcripts is going to be anything but mildly embarrassing. I’m guessing the worst of it would be some reference to how strong and lopsided the backlash has been against Wall Street.

Now, though, they live on in the public imagination, and they robbed Hillary of what could have been a nail in the coffin of Bernie’s campaign against her.

As for the rest of the debate, it hardly matters what I think, because the narrative will be “Dems getting nasty in close battle for New York,” but such as it is, I think like Nixon/Kennedy, anyone who listened to this debate on the radio would declare Hillary the winner, and anyone who watched on TV would probably say Sanders was the victor. Hillary bested Bernie on the substance, but Bernie’s performance was crowd-pleasing and narrative-supporting. I do think, though, that on both counts, Hillary’s performance played better to a general election audience.

 

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