It is amazing how little the Democratic race has really changed over the last several months. Hillary Clinton is the odds-on favorite to win the nomination. Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) is leading a revolt from the left. Sanders speaks to white ideological liberals and young Democrats. Clinton speaks to practically everyone else in the party — and, as “Saturday Night Live” pointed out, provides a refuge for moderates terrified of the other options this election year. Nothing in Sunday night’s debate changed any of this, which nets out to a loss for Sanders.
Down in the polls in advance of Tuesday’s major contest in Michigan, Sanders needs the race to take a dramatic turn before Clinton wins another populous state. Yet rather than attempting to advance onto new ground in Sunday’s debate, Sanders simply entrenched himself on his same narrow patch of ideological turf. Either he knows he probably will not win the nomination and he figures he should just keep making his point while everyone is still watching, or he believes that his problem is that not enough people have heard him say the same things over and over again.
In fact, much of the debate revolved around the same basic argument between practicality and ideology that emerged the first time the two faced off on the debate stage, when Clinton declared, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Early in the debate, Clinton criticized Sanders for voting against the 2009 auto industry bailout. Sanders said that the auto bailout was folded into a larger bill that also bailed out the financial industry. He argued that “the billionaires” should have bailed out themselves, by which he means that Congress should have accepted his politically ludicrous plan to raise taxes in the middle of a recession. Clinton responded that Sanders chose purity over the public good. “You have to make hard choices when you’re in a position of responsibility,” she said. “If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed.” Not only the auto industry. If Congress refused to respond practically to a moment of profound national crisis, it would have made the economic panic much, much worse and ruined many more ordinary people.
Later in Sunday’s debate, Clinton proposed doubling the amount of money the country invests in transportation infrastructure — which, despite bipartisan support for fixing up the nation’s roads and rails, would be a big legislative lift. “I’m trying to do this in a way that will gain support and be affordable,” she said. Moderator Don Lemon then asked Sanders to explain why his plan, which is twice as large as Clinton’s, is not “yet another example of a costly plan that will never get through Congress,” given that President Obama struggled to get a much smaller infrastructure proposal through. Sanders merely restated the case for much more spending and said he would target corporate tax dodgers to pay for it, ignoring the question of whether either proposal would be politically plausible.
Finally, the two candidates talked about fracking, an issue on which there is an obvious, sensible middle ground that Sanders predictably scorned. Clinton listed off a series of requirements she would impose on domestic fracking operations, such as limiting methane emissions and insisting on standards that would prevent water contamination. This is not so different from the Obama administration’s wholly reasonable position, which is to allow the industry to employ people and sell product while minimizing the environmental risks. Sanders simply said that he wants to ban fracking, and he dismissed the Democratic governors who want to see well-regulated fracking proceed in their states.
At least the detour onto fracking forced the candidates to speak about an issue that has not gotten much attention this campaign, even if the candidates’ positions simply reconfirmed their general approaches to policy. Mostly, Sanders steered the conversation back to his core concerns — Wall Street, campaign finance, a massive public jobs program and single-payer health care — and made his usual pitch. Clinton, meanwhile, ran for president. “A president can’t go ordering folks around,” she said at one point. “Our system doesn’t permit that.” It’s nice to know at least one candidate on either side is keeping that in mind.