Election 2016

The Bernie Effect Puts Corporate Greed Center Stage at Dem Debate, and Hillary Holds Her Own

The Sanders effect: The Vermont senator calls out capitalist excess.

The Democratic Party’s first presidential debate of its 2016 candidates showed the country that the party has stronger candidates and a clearer common agenda than many people may have expected after a summer dominated by the antics of angry Republicans.

Despite what individual candidates may claim, there was not a clear winner. Bernie Sanders, after a nervous start in his first nationally televised debate, found his footing and demonstrated how he has fundamentally reshaped the Democratic Party, pushing all the candidates to embrace his strong views about income inequality and the need for dramatic responses to capitalistic excess. There has not been a presidential debate in recent memory with such a detailed economic discussion and the need for remedies that would boost wages, workplace benefits, healthcare and other pocketbook concerns. All the candidates supported a federal family leave law for mothers of newborns, and all agreed that wealthy Americans should foot the bill.

Hillary Clinton also demonstrated why she is the front-runner and likely to remain so. Where Sanders was passionate and emphatic, she was poised and forcefully pushed policy specifics she said could be enacted and would make a difference. She firmly rejected the moderator’s characterizations that she took politically expedient positions and said she was proud to be a “progressive who wants to get things done.” On a string of issues, she was not a centrist Democrat in the mold of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, saying, for example that she supports stronger gun controls, criminal justice reform, comprehensive immigration reform, medical marijuana and opposes the latest international trade agreement.

The other three candidates were largely asterisks to the Sanders-Clinton interchange. Ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chaffee, ex-Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, and ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley sought to distinguish their records and values—with O’Malley giving the most detailed prescriptions. But in most instances their comments lingered in the debate’s shadows, with the exception of O’Malley’s closing remarks in which he said that unlike the two previous Republican presidential debates, no candidate in the Democratic debate denigrated women, made racist statements about immigrants or spoke ill of the other candidates. 

There were important differences, however, between the positions taken by Sanders and Clinton on a half-dozen issues, which illustrates both how much Sanders has pushed the Democratic Party to the left and how Clinton has staked out savvy positions that may sound more progressive to Sanders' backers than would prove to be the case if elected. Without Sanders' presence in the race, it is doubtful that Wall Street excesses, which is shorthand for where and how wealth is accumulated but not shared, would be targeted for reforms by all the candidates.

For example, Sanders wanted to increase Social Security retirement benefits and would pay for that by removing a cap that only taxes the first $118,000 of income. Clinton said that she would raise payments for impoverished seniors, especially women. Sanders said he favored a Nevada ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, while Clinton said she only favored legalizing medical marijuana. Sanders wants tuition at public colleges and universities to be free, saying he would pay for that with a Wall Street financial transaction tax. Clinton said she would like free tuition too, but would include a weekly 10-hour work requirement. Only on gun control was Clinton to the left of Sanders, who did a poor job of responding to her attack on his stance; he has opposed militarized weapons but supported hunters' gun rights.

On the crucial issue of reining in Wall Street’s excessive greed, Sanders said he would break up the biggest banks and restore the Depression-era Glass-Steagall Act, which barred commercial banks from investing in speculative financial deals. Clinton said that she would not restore Glass-Steagall but instead spoke of regulating speculators and risky investments, jailing executives who break the law, and looking for the emerging threats posed by non-traditional firms. Sanders replied that she was "niave" if she thought Wall Street would do the right thing because a president was pressuring them.

Nonetheless, these stances by Clinton are shrewd, as they show that she agrees with most of what Sanders is saying, but her solutions—while clearly left of center—aren’t as threatening to their targets and sound more moderate. While Democrats may be wringing their hands over these differences, saying they represent a gulf between systemic and incremental reform, it’s noteworthy that there’s almost no crossover or common ground with the Republican candidates, with the exception of agreeing that criminal justice reform for non-violent crimes is needed.

On matters of war and peace, while the candidates have some differences—all are opposed to the kind of adventuristic foreign policy of the Bush administration—they do not want to send ground troops into Syria, nor do any of them believe that Russia’s Putin is trustworthy. They praised President Obama’s restraint for what Sanders termed a “quagmire within a quagmire.”

The candidates, especially Sanders and Webb, said that none of their progressive agenda items would become a reality unless there were changes to the current campaign finance system, in which several hundred of the wealthiest Americans are bankrolling most of the presidential campaigns and congressional contests. While Webb pointedly told Sanders that his grassroots "revolution" was not going to happen, Sanders repeatedly said that a record high voter turnout and public protests would force Congress to respond.  

Stepping back from the debate stage, it was a good night for all the Democrats. Nobody made any mistakes. All the candidates gave strong presentations of their positions, even if Sanders got off to a somewhat tense start and Clinton showed right off the bat that she was comfortable on the stage. There were even moments of levity, such as when Sanders told the audience and the country that everyone was tired of hearing about Clinton’s private e-mail server when she was the Secretary of State—for which she thanked him. And Sanders, unlike any of the other candidates, mentioned the name of African Americans killed by police in an answer that strongly supported the Black Lives Matter movement.

Another big takeaway is that this debate will probably prompt Vice President Joe Biden to recconsider his presidential ambitions. With Sanders setting the domestic agenda and Clinton embracing much of what he says—but in a smoother way —there seems to be no void a Biden candidacy could fill. If anything, Clinton is running to defend Obama's record and legacy, while Sanders is running to take it to a new orbit, where federal safety net programs would be expanded to assist working- and middle-class Americans.

As the candidates continue to campaign in coming weeks, it clearly helps Clinton that Sanders is a strong campaigner and revving up the Democratic base. If she continues to be the frontrunner, she will have to find ways to bring Bernie’s base into her fold. That will be worth watching. In the meantime, Sanders has made a career of confounding expectations and has the stamina of a long-distance runner. The contest for the 2016 Democratic nomination isn’t over by any means, but it’s getting more compelling.   

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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