by Neil H. Buchanan
The first quasi-debate among the Democratic presidential candidates is in the books, and the overwhelming consensus is that Hillary Clinton won. Every sports metaphor in the book has been applied to her performance: home run, hit it out of the park, blowout, shutout, and so on. Liberals are apparently agog, and even conservatives are grudgingly admitting that she had a great night.
Because of this consensus, the single-digit candidates are under increasing pressure to drop out (although it still seems clear that Martin O'Malley's strategy boils down to being the non-socialist who can step in if a really big Clinton scandal breaks), Bernie Sanders's supporters are reportedly giving Clinton a second look, and the movement to draft Joe Biden has supposedly all but disappeared. Whew! For someone who was supposedly dead in the water, Clinton must be feeling pretty good about herself. With those kinds of reviews, who wouldn't?
I am describing the various reports that I have read about the debate, rather than offering my own reactions, because I long ago decided to stop watching these things live. The groupthink-generated conventional wisdom after such events is usually so at odds with what I saw on the screen that I have learned not to trust my own eyes. This does not mean that I think that my judgment on these things is wrong, but the political reality has everything to do with the verdict from the media hive and nothing to do with substance, so I find that it is better just to say, "It doesn't matter what I saw. What will matter is what the talking heads claim to have seen." In this, as in so many things, perception becomes reality.
Even so, there are a few matters that came up in the news reports that had me looking through the transcript of the debate. Here on Dorf on Law, I recently admitted that I have softened my anti-Clinton views, to the point where I even found a way to admire Clinton's ability to change positions so nimbly. Yet I still have my doubts. In any case, I hereby offer a few thoughts on the debate, many (but not all) of which are negative assessment's of Hillary Clinton's comments:
(1) As far as I can see (and as confirmed by a simple search), the only time anyone mentioned the word "debt" during the debate was in the context of student loan debt, and no one used the word "deficit" at all. This has to count as a victory for America. My major complaint, after all, about not only Bill Clinton but also Barack Obama and far too many other Democrats over the last few decades, is that they are eager to play the deficit-hysteria game. Even though the moderator did not ask direct questions about the deficit or the national debt, surely "old Hillary" would have eagerly attacked Bernie Sanders for supposedly being a budget-buster. As I have stated ad nauseam, there are good deficits and there are bad deficits. With Republicans carting around their comical "national debt clocks" to every event, it is good to see that the Democrats are not -- so far -- going for their suicidal "me too" approach on public finance. Of course, this is only the pre-primaries.
(2) Clinton did disappoint me with a bit of red-baiting. She was helped along by the moderator, who surely felt it necessary to address the label "socialist" that Sanders embraces. Still, Clinton's comments were beneath her. Sanders offered an excellent definition of his version of socialism, which simply means to be opposed to extreme inequality and rigged financial markets, while supporting universal health care and basic worker protections that exist in every country to which we would want to compare ourselves. Asked pointedly, "You don't consider yourself a capitalist, though?" Sanders made clear that he was rejecting "casino capitalism" and said: "I believe in a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires."
Not exactly a Trotskyite screed, eh? Even so, Clinton could not resist, responding by saying that "when
I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that
were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our
country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves
and their families." Get it? Sanders is a socialist, so he is against freedom and mom-and-pop businesses, whereas Hillary is all about "opportunity."
Sanders has been rightly praised for dismissing the Clinton email controversy, when he could have said something about "trustworthiness" or "patterns of putting herself above the law." Instead, he ignored that political opportunity and said what he believed. Similarly, Clinton had the opportunity to laugh the socialist bogeyman out of the room, moving the contest between her and her chief rival back to the merits (and taking the opportunity to tell America that this red-baiting is stupid). She agreed with Sanders about Wall Street, and even had a good line about "sav[ing] capitalism from itself," but she could not bring herself to admit that the Sanders version of socialism is basically nothing different from middle-of-the-road views in a country like Canada (or, for that matter, the Democrats' views from 1932 until about 1992).
(3) And speaking of other countries, Clinton apparently drew great applause when she followed up her paean to small-business capitalism by saying, "But we are not Denmark. I love Denmark. We are the United States of America." Yeeesh. American exceptionalism in response to the simple mention of one example of a country that does a lot of things right?
Then, after agreeing again with Sanders on the substance, Clinton added: "But we would be making a grave mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest middle class in the history..." Nothing in Sanders's views suggests that he would make such a "grave mistake," or even what kind of mistake Clinton has in mind. This binary capitalism-love-it-or-leave-it stuff is usually reserved for people like Rick Perry and Bill O'Reilly. Moreover, Clinton apparently missed the news last year that the great American middle class has been eclipsed by the great Canadian middle class. You know, Canada. The place that apparently has turned its collective back on American-style capitalism by adopting Denmark-style social programs. In Clinton's world, however, it is more important to gleefully embrace the Bernie-as-gulag-builder meme.
(4) Finally, I was very pleased to see that O'Malley specifically called for bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act's separation of commercial from investment banking. (Lincoln Chafee's defense of his vote to repeal Glass-Steagall is being rightly mocked.) Given Bill Clinton's enthusiastic endorsement of that repeal, Hillary Clinton needs to say whether this is yet another thing that happened in the 1990's that she now thinks was a mistake. There seem to be a lot of those things.