Hillary to Bernie: You Smear Me When You Tell the Truth

02/05/2016 10:22 am ET Updated Feb 05, 2017

I watched yet another Democratic debate last night, this one moderated by MSNBC in a more traditional format instead of the previous version's "town hall." Much was repeated: Bernie Sanders wants a "revolution" to overthrow a rigged economy and to enact campaign finance reform, Hillary Clinton says she's a progressive who can get things done and who will build on the legacy of President Obama.

For me, the big moment came when Hillary tried to change the narrative on her taking millions of dollars from banks, investment houses, and Wall Street in the form of speaking fees and money from Super PACs. She accused Bernie of a "smear" campaign when he "insinuated" she might be influenced by all this money. She said other progressives (she cited Obama, for example) took money from Wall Street yet still allegedly held the big money boys to account.

Another moment, not as big but also telling, was when Bernie painted Hillary as an "establishment" candidate. Talk about stating the obvious! But Hillary rejected this by playing the gender card. How can I be an establishment candidate for president, Hillary asked, when if elected I'd be the first woman president? This is total nonsense, of course. She is an establishment candidate who just happens to be a woman. But I suppose she and her team had no other response to the truth Bernie was bringing.

Speaking of the establishment, after claiming she wasn't part of it, Hillary cited Henry Kissinger's praise of her, saying Kissinger had applauded her for running a tight ship at the State Department. Praise from Caesar...

But back to the "smear" campaign. Obviously, Hillary and her team are hoping the media will focus on the smoke and mirrors generated by that loaded term, while neglecting the reality of Bernie's truth-telling. Given the craven nature of the mainstream media, her cynical gambit may even work.

When the big money boys give millions to candidates, any candidate, they're not usually so blatant (or stupid) as to be buying votes. They're not going to get caught telling a candidate, vote yes on this, no on that. What they're buying is access. They're gaining the candidate's ear. They want to be the last "person" to whisper in the candidate's ear before she or he makes a decision.

I'm sure Hillary believes she's her own woman. But she knows how the system works, and so does Bernie. If you accept big money, you know it always comes with strings attached. The more big money you accept, the more strings, until no matter how much you resist, you end up dancing like a puppet on those strings. That's basically Bernie's point, and it's not a smear. It's the truth.

An interesting question came up about whether Hillary would be willing to share transcripts of all her speeches before the big money boys. She said she'd look into it. If she's the "progressive" she claims to be, she should be willing to share those transcripts immediately as a matter of public record. Something tells me we either won't see these transcripts, or they'll be released months from now, after the primary race is decided.

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