(Reuters/Brian Snyder)


From the outset of this campaign, Bernie Sanders has sometimes seemed reluctant to take his arguments about our corrupt political system to their logical conclusion: he has declined to say outright that Hillary Clinton’s policy positions are the direct result of her reliance on corporate contributions and her profiting from Wall Street speaking fees. On at least some previous occasions, given the chance to clarify that he believes this, he has declined to do so, instead sticking to a more general critique of the corrupting potential of big money in politics.

At last night’s debate — and in a very tough new ad released this morning — Sanders made it as explicit as you could want that he does believe this to be the case. The new ad, which was first reported by Alex Seitz-Wald, does not name Clinton directly. But it leaves no doubt about its target, and flatly states that, in exchange for “campaign contributions and speaking fees,” Wall Street banks “get” a “rigged economy” and “tax breaks” as a direct reward:

Similarly, at last night’s debate, Sanders was asked this question directly (emphasis mine): “Can you name one decision that she made as senator that shows that she favored banks because of the money she received?” Sanders replied: “Sure, sure,” and then went on to cite Clinton’s disagreement with him over whether to break up the big banks, again citing her speaking fees, as if to say the latter was a direct cause of the former.

Sanders’s explicit case here is that corporate contributions and speaking fees are directly responsible for what he claims is her softness on Wall Street, relative to his own stance. This storyline has also played out in their argument over whether Clinton takes money from the fossil fuel industry and whether that is directly responsible for the fact that her climate agenda is less ambitious than his climate agenda is.

That, too, was on display again last night: Sanders properly demanded that Clinton clarify whether she could support a carbon tax, and she refused. On the other hand, Clinton rightly suggested that the notion that she is a stooge of the fossil fuel industry is belied by her strong support for Obama’s Clean Power Plan and global climate deal, which Sanders somewhat dismissively described as a “step forward,” adding: “we’ve got to get beyond paper right now.”

I have already repeated myself endlessly about the deeper argument between the two that all of this reflects. Sanders has achieved something important: he has forced his critique of the system onto the political agenda, and he’s right to ask whether such donations do skew policy outcomes, by giving big corporate donors greater access to politicians and, by extension, by predisposing politicians to sympathy towards their donors’ view of policy dilemmas. Clinton agrees with the idea that big money in politics has corrupting potential. But she insists that any given individual politician — such as herself — is not inevitably corrupted or unduly influenced in her policy choices by that money.

Put another way: Clinton argues that it is possible to work within a corrupt system to reform that system. Sanders simply does not believe this is possible, and said so explicitly last night: “You can’t take money from powerful special interests into your PAC and then really expect the American people to believe you’re going to stand up to these powerful special interests.”

Ultimately, though, Sanders is not just running against the whole political system. He’s also running against Hillary Clinton. And the question is: do Democratic voters believe what Sanders is saying about not just the corrupt political system, but about the degree to which she has been tainted and captured by it? Senior Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver thinks the answer is Yes:

Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Sanders, argued his candidate had a break-through performance by attacking Clinton’s reliance on corporate donors and calling on her to release transcripts of her paid speeches.

“On issues after issue, he was able to show that his position was more in line with Democratic voters,” Weaver told reporters after the debate, calling it Sanders’s “strongest debate of the year.”

Maybe. But my strong suspicion is that Clinton’s reliance on corporate money and her Wall Street speeches are not actually deal-breakers, in and of themselves, for many Democratic voters. Judging by the fact that Clinton has won far more popular votes than Sanders has — and appears to be on track to winning the nomination — many Democratic voters believe Clinton when she claims her economic policy positions are not directly shaped by Wall Street cash. Or perhaps they agree with Clinton when she says that the next president will also have to battle a host of other problems beyond the plutocracy’s continued grip on our political system — such as bigotry, discrimination, and the ideological entrenchment of the GOP — and that she’s better equipped to do that.

Clinton would be well served if she more directly engaged on the question of why she is immune to the corrupting potential of big money that Democrats have long decried, and how she squares that with her continued opposition to Citizens United. But right now, it doesn’t look like this dispute will be enough to derail her.


* BERNIE FACES AN UPHILL FIGHT: Dan Balz delivers a reality check on the delegate math:

The key to Sanders’s strategy is overtaking her in pledged delegates. That will become increasingly difficult. After New York, 65 percent of the Democratic pledged delegates will have been allocated. One third of the remaining 35 percent will be awarded by California and New Jersey on the next-to-last primary day of the year. Sanders could win some states in the month of May, but, overall, the terrain could be discouraging for him and his supporters.

Also, on April 26th come the Pennsylvania and Maryland primaries, where a total of 328 delegates is at stake — and she is favored in both, meaning we could have a lot more clarity in less than two weeks.

* BERNIE SHIFTS ON GUNS: Last night Sanders said that he believes the Sandy Hook families “have the right to sue” gun manufactures. The Post fact checking team explains:

This is a shift in Sanders’s stance….He has always said that manufacturers should not be held liable for guns purchased legally, then used in shootings — as in Sandy Hook. Sanders voted for a controversial 2005 gun manufacturers immunity law, which gave broad federal immunity to gun manufacturers. He consistently has said he supported the law because he believes that gun manufacturers should not be sued when a gun is misused by a third party.

Sanders has also justified his vote — understandably — on the grounds that small gun-sellers should not be targeted by such lawsuits. It turns out the decision whether to support major legislation is morally complicated!

* HOW DEM DEBATE PLAYED IN ISRAEL: This Haaretz headline says it all:

At Democratic Debate, Sanders Stands Up for Palestinians While Clinton Takes Strong pro-Israel Stance

It was one of the best moments: Sanders repeatedly challenged Clinton to say whether Israel’s response to Palestinians had been “disproportionate.” She repeated refused. And Sanders repeatedly rejected the idea that this criticism is anti-Israel and, therefore, illegitimate.

* THE POLITICS OF THEIR ISRAEL DISPUTE, EXPLAINED: The First Read crew explains the political backdrop for that argument:

Sanders was speaking mostly to American liberals (who are increasingly sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians), while Clinton was speaking to New Yorkers (whose Jewish community is still pretty pro-Israel). And by the way, yesterday’s NBC New York/WSJ/Marist poll — which came out before the debate — showed Clinton leading Sanders among Jewish Democrats in New York by a 2-to-1 margin, 65%-32%.

Their Israel dispute was also a good example of how Sanders continues to shift the boundaries of legitimate political debate, in a salutary way.

* SUPER PACs IN OUR ‘NEW GILDED AGE’: An amazing new report from Matea Gold and Anu Narayanswamy concludes this about all of this cycle’s Super PAC funding:

Close to half of the money — 41 percent — raised by the groups by the end of February came from just 50 mega-donors and their relatives, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal campaign finance reports. In all, donors this cycle have given more than $607 million to 2,300 super PACs, which can accept unlimited contributions from individuals and corporations. That means super PAC money is on track to surpass the $828 million that the Center for Responsive Politics found was raised by such groups for the 2012 elections.

And hundreds and hundreds of millions more is on the way.

* AND GIVE TRUMP THE NOMINATION, OR HE’LL DESTROY THE GOP: Donald Trump takes to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to argue that it would be an illegitimate outcome if the nomination goes to anyone other than Donald Trump:

Responsible leaders should be shocked by the idea that party officials can simply cancel elections in America if they don’t like what the voters may decide. The only antidote to decades of ruinous rule by a small handful of elites is a bold infusion of popular will….Mr. Cruz has won only three primaries outside his home state and trails me by two million votes….How have we gotten to the point where politicians defend a rigged delegate-selection process with more passion than they have ever defended America’s borders?

If Trump loses at a contested convention, he’ll cast the outcome as proof of the very same elite corruption he’s been railing at all along, to destroy the GOP’s general election chances.