(AP Photo/Gaston De Cardenas)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

At last night’s debate, Hillary Clinton opened a new front of sorts against Bernie Sanders when she made this closing argument:

“We agree that we’ve got to get unaccountable money out of politics. We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck Main Street again. But here’s the point I want to make tonight. I am not a single-issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country. I think that a lot of what we have to overcome to break down the barriers that are holding people back….whether it is any other American today who feels somehow put down and oppressed by racism, by sexism, by discrimination against the LGBT community, against the kind of efforts that need to be made to root out all of these barriers, that’s what I want to take on.

“And here in Wisconsin, I want to reiterate: We’ve got to stand up for unions and working people who have done it before, the American middle class, and who are being attacked by ideologues, by demagogues. Yes, does Wall Street and big financial interests, along with drug companies, insurance companies, big oil, all of it, have too much influence? You’re right.

“But if we were to stop that tomorrow, we would still have the indifference, the negligence that we saw in Flint. We would still have racism holding people back. We would still have sexism preventing women from getting equal pay. We would still have LGBT people who get married on Saturday and get fired on Monday.”

The key thing here is Clinton’s reference to ideologues and demagogues, and to the lingering existence of sexism and racism. Clinton is essentially telling the Democratic Party’s various constituencies — the nonwhites who will dominate in upcoming primaries; the women she needs to perform better among — that Sanders’s diagnosis of what ails America is too narrowly focused to seriously tackle their problems.

Sanders believes the primary work of the next president is to break the oligarchs who are responsible for rigging our economy and paralyzing the political system from doing anything about it. Clinton believes the main obstacles to progress are also rooted in anti-government ideology and prejudice, and the ability of conservative politicians to successfully exploit those forces to advance socially conservative goals and to get people to vote against their economic interests.

At the same time, though, Clinton’s performance last night represented a kind of concession to Sanders, too. In her closing statement, and also in her opening one, she went out of her way to signal agreement that flat wages can be blamed on the rigging of the economy and that this status quo is maintained by a political system that is to some degree captive to big money special interests. What’s more, Clinton’s response to Sanders oversimplifies his position to some degree — he also recognized the need to fight prejudice and discrimination. But it seems clear that Sanders sees oligarchy as the main problem facing us, while Clinton places more emphasis on the myriad other forces that frustrate the Democratic and progressive agendas. (Beyond all this, Sanders and Clinton legitimately disagree on precisely what that agenda should look like.)

Clinton’s argument against Sanders may be rooted in her political imperatives in coming Dem primary contests. As Jonathan Cohn observes, Clinton may be calculating that more moderate Dem voters will find her assessment of our — or their — challenges more realistic, and thus decide she’s more equipped to meet them:

Just like Sanders’ pitch is a natural fit for his constituency of younger voters, the Clinton argument probably resonates with older voters who have lived through the same political battles she has. They might like what Sanders is promising. They just don’t believe he can deliver it.

Meanwhile, as Charles Blow has argued, African American voters (who are key in February and March) may, due to historical experience, be inclined towards a “functional pragmatism” that will lead many of them to detect in Sanders’s promises a “whiff of fancifulness.” Clinton’s effort to cast herself (in the eyes of black voters) as more realistic about the true ideological nature of the opposition is also about making the case that she will more successfully defend Obama’s achievements. But that brings us to our next item.

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* PRO-CLINTON SUPER PAC JUMPS INTO PRIMARY BATTLE: Matea Gold scoops that the pro-Clinton Priorities USA will launch a big radio ad campaign in South Carolina that says this:

“We all worked hard in 2008 and 2012 to elect President Obama. And we’ve seen with our own eyes how Republicans have tried to tear him down every step of the way. We can’t let them hold us back. We need a president who will build on all that President Obama has done. President Obama trusted Hillary Clinton to be America’s secretary of state. And we know Hillary Clinton has the vision and courage to help build an economy to support our communities. Hillary Clinton will always stand strong for us.”

The tacit message here is that Obama has designated Clinton as his successor because he believes she has what it takes to defend his accomplishments.

* HILLARY CAMP’S NEW STRATEGY FOR RATTLING BERNIE: At last night’s debate, the candidates repeatedly clashed over Sanders’s lack of foreign policy experience, and the New York Times reports this nugget:

Mrs. Clinton’s pointed critique of Mr. Sanders was part of a new calculation by her campaign that the debate format, in which Mrs. Clinton excels, was the best way to draw attention to Mr. Sanders’s record and his minimal expertise in foreign policy.

It’s a good thing that there will now be more debates than the Clinton campaign originally wanted, then!

* BERNIE FACES STEEP CHALLENGES AHEAD: The Post makes this absolutely crucial point about why the calendar now becomes “far more challenging” for Sanderst:

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Sanders trounced Clinton among independents. But he lost self-identified Democrats to Clinton by double digits and only narrowly carried them in New Hampshire. In states with closed primaries, which means independents are not allowed to participate, he will face heavier going.

Add to this the fact that many of the coming contests feature electorates that are far more diverse and moderate than those in Iowa and New Hampshire, and may have more voters who want to continue Obama’s policies.

* JOHN KASICH ACCENTUATES THE POSITIVE: CNN reports that John Kasich is going up on the air in South Carolina with a pair of positive ads:

One of the ads, a biographical piece that focuses on Kasich’s faith in God, appears aimed squarely at South Carolina’s sizeable evangelical population. “My parents were killed by drunk driver, but my parents did not die in vain,” Kasich says in his new ad. “I was transformed. I discovered my purpose by discovering the Lord.” The second ad is snappy spot centered on Kasich’s goals in his first 100 days if elected president.

The strategy appears designed to rise above what is certain to be an exceptionally nasty contest (good luck with that!) The thing to watch with Kasich is whether the pile-up in the “establishment lane” again prevents Marco Rubio from emerging as the lane’s leader.

* TED CRUZ RIPS TRUMP’S ‘PATTERN OF SLEAZE’: The Ted Cruz campaign is up with a new ad that accuses Donald Trump of a “pattern of sleaze going back decades.” The ad’s story is that Trump supports the use of eminent domain, to which Trump responds:

Trump brought up the ad during his Thursday-night rally and explained to his crowd of more than 10,000 that eminent domain is a necessary practice that can make homeowners a lot of money, especially if they have a good lawyer. He urged his rally crowd not to believe any of the attack ads they see.

Eminent domain, it seems, is a proxy to argue that Trump is really a Big Government Liberal at heart, and not a True Conservative. But what if a lot of GOP voters don’t care whether Trump is a True Conservative?

* TRUMP REWRITES THE RULES IN SOUTH CAROLINA: Politico reports that Republicans are mystified by the Trump campaign’s lack of any serious ground operation in South Carolina, which contrasts with major efforts from Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. But:

Of course, it may not matter in the end, the very same South Carolinian Republicans acknowledge — because the billionaire real estate tycoon has “rewritten all the rules” on campaigning here. And maybe, just maybe, they say, he doesn’t need the face-to-face interaction with residents that once boosted candidates like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan into the lead.

Trump’s success is terrible news for the GOP consultant class.

 * WHAT BERNIE SAID ABOUT OBAMA IN 2011: Clinton last night attacked Sanders for calling Obama “weak” and a “disappointment” in 2011. Glenn Kessler unearthed Sanders’s actual comments at the time:

“There are millions of Americans who are deeply disappointed in the president, who believe that with regard to Social Security and a number of other issues, he said one thing as a candidate and is doing something very much else as a president, who cannot believe how weak he has been — for whatever reason — in negotiating with Republicans, and there’s deep disappointment.”

So a bit of context is missing: Sanders said millions view Obama in these terms. Still, it is true that Sanders’s message does indict Obama for failing to achieve the level of change needed to address our challenges.