Bernie Sanders Won Last Night's Democratic Debate

02/04/2016 10:17 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2017
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a Democratic Presidentia
Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a Democratic Presidential Town Hall hosted by CNN and the New Hampshire Democratic Party at the Derry Opera House in Derry, New Hampshire, U.S., on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. Even with the close contest in Iowa and with Bernie Sanders favored to win New Hampshire on Feb. 9, Clinton remains the candidate with the best odds of capturing the Democratic nomination for president as the campaign moves into more favorable territory, starting Feb. 27 in South Carolina. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last night, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton separately took questions from a "town hall" in Derry, New Hampshire with Anderson Cooper moderating. Overall, both candidates did well, though I give the edge to Sanders (more on why in a moment).

Sanders came across as passionate on the issues and concerned for ordinary Americans. He continues to speak of a political revolution, which to him doesn't mean tumbrels to the guillotine. It means getting more people involved in the political process, especially youth and the disadvantaged. He spoke eloquently of helping others. Memorable to me was his work to desegregate housing owned by the University of Chicago when Sanders was a student. When asked why he fought against racist policies, Sanders said he's always hated a bully -- and always fought for fairness and equality. He came across, in short, as an honest and decent man, a man of integrity, which is the word his wife used to describe him (she was sitting in the audience, and was asked to describe her husband with a single word).

Hillary came across as determined and competent and informed. She tended to meander during her answers, coming across as somewhat of a policy wonk or a technocrat. She rejected Sanders' talk of a revolution, preferring to build on President Obama's (and her own) legacy. For example, she wants to put the finishing touches to Obamacare, rather than going for Sanders' idea of a single-payer, "Medicare for all" system. She spoke briefly of breaking the ultimate glass ceiling for women -- her gaining the office of the presidency -- and how that would inspire women of all ages. She took her usual hardline on U.S. foreign policy, making no promises that she would reduce wars or for that matter spending on defense.

In sum, if you're happy with the status quo, you'll get plenty of that with Clinton. If you want change, if you're tired of a "rigged" economy and a corrupt political process, Sanders is far more likely to act in your favor.

Where I thought Hillary fell down was in her posturing as a progressive. The millions of dollars she has accepted in speaking fees from banks and investment houses, she suggested, would have no impact on her policy decisions, which is simply implausible. Powerful organizations don't give political candidates big money without strings attached to it, and of course Clinton knows this. It also seemed implausible when Clinton suggested she had not decided to run for president when she accepted those speaking fees. As if her "doubts" about running absolved her of responsibility for taking big money from Wall Street. It was all frankly unconvincing.

Hillary Clinton is a fighter. She came across best when she spoke of the Republican right-wing attacks she'd had to endure over the last 25 years, and what they'd taught her about the political process. Her footing was less secure when she had to relate to other people. For example, a man suffering from advanced-stage cancer asked her about dying with dignity. Bill Clinton, the "natural" as Hillary called him, would have turned this into an empathetic "I feel your pain" moment. But Hillary got lost in the details, saying she would have to study up on the ethics of terminal care, the laws, the role of medical professionals, what other countries are doing (she mentioned The Netherlands), and so on. As she tackled the problem in a wonkish way, she seemed to forget the person standing in front her.

In sum, Bernie Sanders is driving the narrative, not Hillary Clinton. It's Bernie who's been talking about a rigged system, about economic fairness, about working for unions, about justice and prison reform, and it's Hillary who's been put on the defensive. So lately Hillary's been borrowing liberally from Bernie's script. She's now talking about "the deck being stacked" against ordinary people, and how she's going to fight for workers, and how much Wall Street is supposedly against her candidacy.

As Bernie has gained in the polls, as his message has begun to resonate, Hillary has responded by trying to be more like Bernie. And it just doesn't ring true, at least for me. Advantage, Bernie.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, blogs at Bracing Views.