Debate Advice for Hillary and Bernie

01/18/2016 08:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2016

So we had the fourth Democratic debate last night, and I suppose we should all be thankful that Debbie Wasserman Schultz didn't somehow manage to schedule it to compete with one of football's playoff games. I wouldn't be surprised if the debate had a pretty low viewership, appearing as it did on a Sunday night during a three-day weekend, but those who did manage to catch it saw a much more high-spirited contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton than we've previously seen.

I'm not a big fan of declaring who "won" and "lost" debates, and I actually thought both candidates furthered their cause with a particular emphasis towards appealing to South Carolina and minority voters. That was one bar for the debate, and both candidates cleared it pretty easily. Oh, I should insert the obligatory mention that Martin O'Malley was also on the stage, even though he has no chance whatsoever of winning. Below are my debate reactions, complete with advice to both viable candidates on how to improve their performance for the next time around.


Hillary Clinton

Hillary has a tough argument to make, at least for 2016. He basic position might be summed up as "the politics of the possible." But "Let's just settle! Don't dream big!" is not much of a crowd-pleasing slogan. This is her essential problem, in a very volatile election year.

However, Hillary Clinton's campaign is smarter than some progressives now might think. There are a lot of Democrats out there who are already afraid to dream big. "Look where it got us last time," they say, "with all those oversold promises of hope and change." This, combined with "Bernie will never get any of his ideas through Congress," is indeed a powerful message to practical voters. Hillary's basic argument is one of pragmatism, which is a very solid position for her to take (considering her own and her husband's political history). When Republicans control Congress (even just the House), it is nearly impossible to pass any truly revolutionary or even progressive changes. This sounds pessimistic, but lots of voters see it as being more realistic than hoping for the pie-in-the-sky of Bernie Sanders's platform.

Hillary Clinton did raise this issue during last night's debate, but she's going to have to make this case even more explicitly. The best line she had last night in this regard was to remind Bernie that even with a House and Senate under complete control by Democrats, they weren't even able to get the "public option" voted on during the health care debate. That's a sobering reminder for a lot of voters of the frustration of dealing with Congress -- even when their own party overwhelmingly controls it.

As I said, this isn't exactly an inspirational message. In a year where a large portion of the electorate on both sides of the aisle is calling for fundamental change in Washington, Clinton is making the case that for all that lofty talk of revolutionary change, when the next president is sworn in, Congress will still remain. Even if the Democrats win the White House again and provide some strong down-ballot coattails, it's more than likely that Republicans will still control the House of Representatives. This means that Paul Ryan (or his successor) is likely going to have to be a party to any negotiations over new legislation. So hoping for fundamental change means, almost inevitably, that you're going to be disappointed with the actual results.

Hillary needs to make this one of her core arguments against Bernie, even more so than she did last night. The most interesting thing Hillary's now doing is to (as one pundit put it) "wrap herself in Obama." I actually do give Clinton a lot of credit for her full-throated defense of Obama's record and legacy, which (in the larger sense) is a rebuke of how Democrats ran for office in 2010 and 2014. Defend Obamacare (Hillary is telling the rest of the party), defend and praise Obama's record in general, and remind everyone why they voted for him in the first place. If Obama's approval with the public goes up, it will benefit Democrats all up and down the ballot next year.

This isn't exactly a new strategy for a politician running to replace a president of their own party, of course. It's really just "Politics 101," in fact. But it is a lot better strategy than Democrats attempted in Obama's two off-year elections -- where they essentially ran from his record rather than running on his record. Clinton is positioning herself as a continuation of the Obama agenda, with promises to make his achievements better (mostly by tinkering around the edges). However, she goes too far when she tries to paint Sanders as someone who would willingly dismantle and destroy what Obama has achieved -- Democratic voters are smarter than she is assuming, and they're likely just not going to buy that line of attack (since it is so disingenuous to begin with).

Instead, Clinton should spin her incrementalist nature as being a positive thing. As I mentioned, there are plenty of Democratic voters out there who do agree with many of Bernie's issues, but who also feel that he's promising them too much. They want to dream big, they really do -- but they also don't want to be massively disappointed. For now, this means they'll probably vote for Hillary, whose platform does seem a lot more do-able. Hillary should play this up both on the campaign and during the debates. "We can do this!" she should proudly proclaim. "This is not some pipe dream of a new Utopia!" might also work. Anything that reinforces "this is both possible and achievable, even with a Republican House" and plants doubts about Bernie Sanders being able to deliver on any of his lofty promises could work to her benefit. Her final summation of this strategy might be: "Let's build on the Obama legacy, and make it even better!"


Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders has finally broken through the media's previous silence about his campaign. What a difference a few good polls make, eh? Sanders's campaign has been what the pundits have been talking about (on the Democratic side) for the past week, and most pundits today have already coalesced around the "Bernie won the debate" storyline. This is what Bernie (and Bernie supporters) have been clamoring for all along, so now we're going to see how much good it does his campaign efforts.

Bernie was a lot better last night than he was in the previous debates. He's making his basic case in much more varied ways, rather than simply repeating the same line over and over again (I don't think he actually said "millionaires and billionaires" once last night, but I admit I could be wrong -- I wasn't counting, or anything). He's doing a much better job of not letting Clinton define his positions for him, and a much better job of pointing out where Clinton's spin veers off into the unbelievable.

Bernie's challenge is almost exactly the same one Barack Obama faced, when running against Hillary Clinton -- giving the voters enough optimism to actually believe that they can let themselves dream big. The true test of this will be beyond Iowa and New Hampshire, because even if Bernie beats Hillary in the early contests, he's still got a lot of voters elsewhere to convince that "Democratic nominee Bernie Sanders" is a very real possibility -- and not some fanciful fantasy story that could never actually happen. Obama managed to successfully do this, but it remains to be seen whether Sanders can do the same.

There's a very good reason why Hillary Clinton is making such a big deal out of gun control, of course -- because that's the only real issue on which she can position herself to Bernie's left. It's the only thing she can honestly say "I'm more progressive than him" about, and she knows it. Sanders managed to deflect much of this attack by shifting gears on the liability immunity issue (I was surprised Clinton didn't use the term "flip-flop" last night, because she was endlessly repeating it Sunday morning in multiple interviews). Sanders may be slightly vulnerable on gun control, but Clinton is vulnerable to this type of attack on just about everything else.

On several issues -- the minimum wage, health care, free public college tuition for all (to name just three) -- Clinton is not only to the right of Sanders, she's actually using Republican arguments to make her case. "Too high a minimum wage kills jobs," for instance. Bernie tried to point this out last night, but he needs to make this much more explicit. I was surprised that Sanders missed a big opportunity to throw Clinton's own words back in her face on the health care issue. Here's a quote from Hillary during the 2008 campaign, expressing her outrage (her word) that Barack Obama would try to fearmonger voters about her health care plan:

[It is] not only wrong, but it is undermining core Democratic principles. Since when do Democrats attack one another on universal health care? I thought we were trying to realize Harry Truman's dream. I thought this campaign finally gave us an opportunity to put together a coalition to achieve universal health care. This is wrong and every Democrat should be outraged because this is the kind of attack that not only undermines core Democratic values, but gives aid and comfort to the very special interests and their allies in the Republican Party who are against doing what we want to do for America. So shame on you, Barack Obama. It is time you ran a campaign consistent with your messages in public. That's what I expect from you.

Sanders should have read that, word for word, to Hillary last night and then calmly asked her when she changed her mind about this sort of tactic.

Beyond pointing out Hillary's Republican arguments, Bernie should absolutely hammer Clinton on how, when she talks about compromising and do-able achievements, she always seems to move towards the Republican position. The best example of this is the family leave issue. Bernie's right when he points out that he already supports an existing bill in the Senate to provide family leave, and that the costs would be minimal ("$1.61 per week") to working families. Clinton, almost echoing Grover Norquist, has taken a very hard line: no new taxes for "the middle class" (which both she and Bernie astonishingly define as any single individual making up to $250,000 a year -- not exactly what I think of when I think of the "middle class," but that's a side issue). Bernie could point this out by offering Clinton a tough choice: "If you were elected president next year and Congress passed the exact same version of family leave that I am now supporting in the Senate, would you sign it or would you veto it?"

This paints Clinton into a corner. She has three possible options: refuse to answer the question, say she'd veto it because it raises taxes on the middle class, or say she'd sign it. If she tried to punt, Bernie could just repeat "Sign it or veto it?" over and over until she was forced to answer it. If she said she'd sign it, then it means that her promise not to raise middle class taxes isn't as firm as she'd like us to believe. If she said she'd veto it, then Bernie could knock it out of the park: "So you talk about what is achievable through Congress, but only when compromise means moving towards the Republican position -- when faced with a choice where you'd have to compromise towards the Democratic Party's consensus position, you would veto legislation that could make millions of families' lives better -- just to keep your conservative pledge on taxes?"

There are other issues where Sanders could make exactly the same point, but this is the most poignant one, since both he and Clinton say they're for the same goal (a family leave policy), but differ on the mechanics of enacting that goal. Clinton would either have to remain true to the goal (and compromise her tactics) or stay true to her tactics (and miss the chance to achieve her goal). Either way, it would point out the inherent centrism (and aversion to progressivism) behind Clinton's mantle of practicality and pragmatism.


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