By Roger Bybee
Coming off his smashing 60%-38% victory in the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Bernie Sanders delighted his supporters by ripping into “the rigged economy and the corrupt campaign finance system that supports it” in Thursday night’s debate with Hillary Clinton at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
In broad strokes, Sanders effectively laid out his fundamental appeal to America. “The American people bailed out wall Street, and it’s now time for Wall Street to help the American people,” he thundered.
But Clinton pulled off one of her most skillful debate performance thus far, pumped up by an audience of 700 that appeared to contain far more administrators and professors than students, who have been captivated by Sanders’ campaign. She artfully peppered her remarks with specific references to Wisconsin issues and villains like Gov. Scott Walker, and kept up her familiar theme that she alone is capable of actually delivering real change rather than merely outlining grand reforms.
Still, Sanders managed to drive home his basic message by launching big punches. He called for reining in Wall Street, generating millions of jobs via rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, opening up opportunities through making public universities free, and creating a cost-efficient, genuinely universal healthcare system.
But Sanders reminded his listeners that none of this is possible without exciting people who have given up on the political system and feel that voting and other action is futile. “As president, I can’t succeed in making these changes, no one person can make these changes, without the involvement of people who now feel left out of a system dominated by billionaires. We need a political revolution.”
Meanwhile, Clinton acted like a boxer trying to tie up a stronger opponent by clinching herself for much of the debate to many of his progressive policy aims. At a number of moments, Clinton seemingly attempted to merge her identity with President Obama in order to jab Sanders by equating his criticisms of her positions with vicious attacks on the president.
For example, Clinton turned a question about foreign-policy leadership into a diatribe on Sanders’ departures from Obama’s positions, which emerged on issues like healthcare reform that retains big insurers in command and “free trade” agreements that foster offshoring of jobs.
In an apparent attempt to land a knockout punch, Clinton denounced Sanders for making “the kind of criticisms of the president that I expect to hear from Republicans.”
Sanders retorted, “That is a low blow. I worked with him closely for seven years. He’s responsible for enormous progress over the time when he came into office, with America losing 800,000 jobs a month.
Sanders then admonished Clinton, “In our country, as a senator, I have the right to disagree. I have voiced criticisms of him when I differed, as I’m sure you have.”
Sanders topped off his counterattack by reminding Clinton, “I’m the only person on this stage who did not run against Barack Obama,” referring to Clinton’s highly contentious campaign in the 2008 Democratic primary.
Among other issues where they clashed, Sanders and Clinton differed clearly on financial reform. Clinton insisted that the Dodd-Frank bill adequately safeguards us from another Wall Street collapse. Sanders responded “I voted for Dodd-Frank, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.”
“Three of the four biggest banks are now bigger, six banks have assets equivalent to 58% of our GNP, and they issue two-thirds of all credit cards,” he said. “If Teddy Roosevelt were alive today, he would be calling for breaking up the big banks.”
Clinton defended her considerable campaign contributions from Wall Street by once again linking herself to President Obama, claiming that he raised considerable funding from Wall Street without it affecting his administration.
Clinton’s version of history conveniently erases the central roles granted by the Obama Administration to big-time Wall Street players like Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, and Steven Rattner. Summers and Geithner’s pro-banker tilt helped to produce the failure of programs to halt the tide of home foreclosures. The Rattner-led bailout of GM and Chrysler, which imposed virtually no conditions on job creation in the US, substantially increased offshoring of auto-industry jobs.
Sanders sharply contested Clinton’s claim of a benign effect from Wall Street contributions: "Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people. Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess for the fun of it — they just want to throw money around."
Clinton had perhaps her best moment of the night in her closing statement, where she vividly outlined the numerous dimensions on which Americans feel deprived of power and their dignity. “We need to address of the poisoning of our water like in Flint, the miners left behind in coal country, the institutional racism, the sexism that women face, and people in the LGBT community who may get married on Saturday and fired on Monday. “
She even launched into a defense of labor that resonated strongly, declaring,” Here in Wisconsin, we have to stand for unions under attack from ideologues and demagogues like Scott Walker who are taking away bargaining rights and destroying the middle class.”
In an obvious swipe at Sanders’ stress on the effects of economic inequality, Clinton sniffed, “I am not a one-issue candidate. This is not a one-issue nation.”
Following the debate, Sanders supporter Nina Turner, a former Ohio state senator, dismissed Clinton’s suggestion that Sanders has somehow treated issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia too lightly. Suggesting that Clinton was a late-comer in her willingness to portray inequalities in the strongly progressive terms, Turner responded, “Bernie’s been strong on all of these issues for years. He was progressive before progressive was cool.”
While Sanders’ performance in the Milwaukee debate was strong, it also revealed some areas where he could refine his approach to Clinton.
CLARITY ON REAL HEALTHCARE REFORM: Once more, as she has in past debates, Clinton suggested that Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal would somehow endanger the gains won through Obama’s Affordable Care Act. With stunning complacency about the spread of high-deductible health plans, pervasive “unaffordable underinsurance,” and tens of millions still without any insurance, Clinton insisted, "The last thing we need to do is throw our country into a contentious debate over health care.”
Clinton even argued incorrectly that Obama’s healthcare reform has provided healthcare to 90% of all Americans, when in fact 29 millon remain uninsured. Clinton called for retaining the central role of profit-driven insurance companies in healthcare, insisting that private insurance was part of America’s approach to healthcare. In reality, private for-profit insurers consume about one-third of all healthcare spending.
While Sanders forcefully made the case for “healthcare as a right for all Americans,” he seemingly failed to explain clearly and concisely exactly how Medicare for All would substitute small monthly taxes in place of the much larger premiums and co-pays now afflicting America’s working families. Despite his long advocacy for single-payer healthcare and his deep familiarity with it, he still has not quite discovered how to lay out his plan in concise and comprehensible terms.
TALKING ABOUT WISCONSIN: With his strong ties to the Wisconsin Left, why did Sanders fail to make any specific references to state issues?
In contrast, Clinton—much less steeped in state activism-- made several powerful connections to Wisconsin level concerns as with the police killing of an unarmed African-American man, the nation-leading rate of black incarceration, and who even denounced Walker’s union-busting.
Bernie Sanders has been meeting with labor and progressive leaders in Wisconsin since 1995. Over the last dozen years, he has spoken at almost every day-long “Fighting Bob” gathering of thousands of Wisconsin progressives, named after Wisconsin’s feisty Progressive Gov. Robert LaFollette who won the passage of numerous reforms benefitting workers, small farmers, and the democratic process. In the bitterly-cold days of early 2011, Sanders traveled to Wisconsin to excoriate Gov. Scott Walker for his legislation to revoke essential union-representation rights to almost all public employees.
Further, with the debate set in Milwaukee, Sanders had a good chance to reinforce the legitimacy of democratic socialism based on the city’s almost continuous line of democratic socialist mayors from 1910 to 1960, with the late Frank Zeidler remaining a beloved figure and Congressman Victor Berger, a particular personal favorite of Sanders, remembered for his courageous stance against WWI.
Yet it was Clinton who frequently discussed Wisconsin issues in a lively way.
A RELEVANT CONTEXT FOR KISSINGER DISCUSSION: To most effectively explain to youthful audiences the significance of both Hillary and Bill Clinton boasting of her relationship with Henry Kissinger, widely despised as a war criminal in progressive and Democratic circles in the 1970’s and 1980’safter his conduct as secretary of state under Richard Nixon.
But to reach a younger audience, Sanders needs to find a much more up-to-date reference. For example, he might consider framing the point by describing Kissinger as the “Dick Cheney of his time.”
Older progressives have an indelible memory of Kissinger’s place in history, recalling his scorched-earth policy in the Vietnam War and the invasion of Cambodia, his coordination of a US-led a coup against the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970, his secret approval of dictators’ Operation Condor death squad operation in southern Latin America, and his signaling of US government’s backing for Indonesia’s takeover of East Timor. Further, in the 1980’s, Kissinger served as a paid consultant for the repressive Chinese dictatorship, and late pushed for congressional approval of the Permanent Normalization of Trade with China which open the floodgates for a massive outflow of US manufacturing jobs to China.
However, given the frequent adulation of Kissinger as an elder statesman in the mainstream media, few young people will catch the full significance of Hillary Clinton’s ties to the reviled Kissinger’s without Sanders introducing this with a more current reference.
CLINTON’S WALL STREET TIES DESERVE MORE PROBING: Maggie Haberman, writing in Politico about Hillary’s much-discussed fees pf $675,000 for speeches to Goldman Sachs, summarized her talks in these terms:“ Clinton offered a message that the collected plutocrats found reassuring, according to accounts offered by several attendees, declaring that the banker-bashing so popular within both political parties was unproductive and indeed foolish.
“Striking a soothing note on the global financial crisis, she told the audience, in effect: We all got into this mess together, and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it. What the bankers heard her to say was just what they would hope for from a prospective presidential candidate: Beating up the finance industry isn’t going to improve the economy—it needs to stop.”
Haberman’s article adds more urgency to the demand that Clinton produce transcripts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs, as well as immediately providing plenty of ammunition for Sanders to use.
Sanders also has an opportunity to question Clinton about her views on Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein’s advocacy of the proper relationship between US presidents and Wall Street: “politicians should naturally reside in a state of more or less constant accommodation with Wall Street."
Perhaps Sanders might also find an opportunity in future debates to probe Clinton’s six years as a member of Wal-Mart’s board of directors.
Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. He edited The Racine Labor weekly for 14 years. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.