Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed in a debate sponsored by The Washington Post and Univision on Wednesday night, the day after a win in the Michigan primary breathed new life into Sanders's underdog campaign.
The duel in Miami was the final one on the schedule (for now, at least) and gave the candidates their last, best chance to set a course for the rest of the race with a national audience watching.
How did they do? Below are our winners and losers.
Hillary Clinton: This debate was a minefield for her. She was coming off a disappointing loss in Michigan that gave Sanders some momentum. She got asked about possibly being indicted (!), about whether she lied about Benghazi and about about her being seen as untrustworthy. And the moderators demanded answers. Clinton avoided a disaster and came out as the better debater, yet again. And despite a couple missteps -- she STILL doesn't have a good answer on her Wall Street speeches?!? -- she had some very strong moments that will likely endure more than anything else.
When asked about her poor honesty ratings and her not-so-great public image, she had this to say: "I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” She added: "This is not easy for me." It was self-aware, and it turned a question about her not being honest into an answer in which she was uniquely candid. And then there was the moment she was speaking directly to a woman whose family had been broken up via deportation. Univision's Enrique Acevedo translated Clinton's heartfelt, slowly spoken answer in this indelible image, with Clinton featuring in a small splitscreen most of the time (though not in this particular image):
Bernie Sanders's suit: The man wore a BROWN SUIT. (Or maybe it was blue? No. No, it was brown.) This was basically all anybody could talk about on social media for the first 10 minutes. The Fix is on-record in support of non-traditional fashion choices. Think: Marco Rubio's boots. And President Obama's tan suit. We have seen way too many political men wearing blue and charcoal suits over the years, and Sanders boldly went where no presidential candidate has gone before ... er, at least in a long time. One issue, though, Bernie: No more button-down collars. They should only be worn sans tie.
Ted Kennedy: When it comes to a Democratic primary with a premium on getting to the left, the liberal lion of the Senate is bound to get some mentions. He was basically the Democrats' own version of Ronald Reagan on Wednesday night, as Clinton recalled the immigration reform he spearheaded in 2007. Clinton noted that Sanders opposed the bill -- suggesting a guilt-by-lack-of-association with Kennedy. Sanders, meanwhile, assured us twice that Kennedy was a very "close friend."
Moderators: Look, Clinton supporters and Clinton herself won't like the fact that Jorge Ramos asked the former secretary of state about being indicted. And they probably really won't like that he pressed her for a firmer "yes" or "no" on whether she would deport illegal immigrant children. But this debate featured something that is often lacking in debates -- follow-ups that demand firm positions. Ramos and The Post's own Karen Tumulty regularly pressed the two candidates when they didn't give a solid answer, trying to get an affirmative or a negative. It's not easy, but every moderator should do this. Candidates obfuscate way too much.
Sanders's chances at the nomination: As noted above, this was the last debate we currently have scheduled. This was Sanders's chance, after a big win in Michigan, to change the course of the race. And he was aggressive. He tried. He's getting better. He even handled a very tough question (in South Florida, no less) about his past praise for Fidel Castro. But he didn't do anything to change the fact that Clinton remains the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Sanders will likely continue to amass delegates and win some states, but he still needs that game-changer to really make this a race. He didn't get it on Wednesday night. And one wonders where else it might come from.
Clinton's attacks: Clinton attacked Sanders in a series of ways that are, well, pretty disingenuous. After attacking him for being against the auto bailout at Sunday's debate -- he voted for it but was against the bank bailout -- Clinton doubled down on some similarly odd lines of attack Wednesday. She tied him to Republicans for opposing Ted Kennedy's immigration bill and suggested he supports the anti-illegal immigrant Minutemen. She noted a Koch brothers group is running an ad thanking Sanders for voting against the Export-Import Bank. And she (yet again) suggested he's trying to undo Obamacare by replacing it with single-payer health care. In each case, it's as if Clinton is painting Sanders as an ally of Republicans. In each case, that's just not true. Mostly, he's taking these positions because he's further to the left than most Democrats. Peter Hamby said it well:
Being a senator: Just in case you forgot that being a senator is not a great thing when it comes to becoming president, this debate should
disavow disabuse you of that. Voting on large packages allows your opponents to pick out one thing that you might or might not support or oppose, and tar you with it over and over again. Plus, you are constantly weighing in on the issues of the day in your public comments. Immigration is case in point. Both candidates struggled Wednesday to explain away things that made them sound not terribly in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. One wonders if voters who care about that issue -- Latinos, in particular -- liked either of their answers.