Another three-day weekend, another time for the Democratic National Committee to bury its very good candidates’ very good debate.
And a good—not great—debate it was. Hillary Clinton delivered what is probably the best answer any candidate has offered at any presidential debate this year. Asked at the evening’s end what topic she wanted to raise that hadn’t come up, she responded by bringing up the plight of Flint, Michigan, and its poor, largely African-American residents, condemned by their completely indifferent Republican governor to drink and bathe in tap water with dangerously high levels of lead. Clinton noted that it was only after she highlighted their predicament last week that that governor, Rick Snyder, said he’d do something about it.
The answer highlighted a difference between Clinton and Bernie Sanders that the debate format accentuates: She is far more comfortable addressing a wide range of topics than he. In a sense, their difference calls to mind the famous essay by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin about the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Hillary’s the fox, of course; Bernie’s the hedgehog. Asked how they’d work with Republicans, both cited instances when they had successfully done so, but Sanders then circled back to the irrefutable fact that in addition to being polarized, Congress is also intractably compromised by its obeisance to big money. In his stump speeches, this is a theme he elaborates with forceful logic; in the debate format, where he repeatedly invokes it in the 30-second sound bites that the format requires, he can come off a bit like Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, who somehow turns to the topic of King Charles’s severed head no matter what he’s discussing.
Sanders is right that reducing the power of the super-rich is essential both to rebuilding the middle class and to restoring a more functional democracy, but there’s more to heaven and earth than that, important though it may be. Sanders owes his success to his ability to identify the rise of the plutocrats as the primary cause of what ails us, and to credibly make the case that no figure in American politics, not to mention in the presidential field, will work harder than he to diminish their sway. But he also needs—both as a debater and, if elected, as a president—to be a little more of a fox. A senator can choose the central focus of his career more easily than a president can, and it’s the presidency that Sanders is seeking.
Even though the Democratic debates have been few and far between, there have now been enough of them for even semi-attentive viewers to know how the three candidates respond when a question takes them off-guard. When Bernie is momentarily nonplussed, he tends to revert to his anti-plutocracy themes—though when asked a question that requires him to make a personal attack, he reverts to his innate decency. (Last night, asked about Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior, he made clear his belief that the question was inappropriate and irrelevant.) When Hillary is asked a question to which she has no immediately prepared answer, she begins by saying she’s released a three- or four- or five-point program on the topic. If she still hasn’t quite figured out what to say, she’ll start running through the points, until the right political answer finally pops into her head.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley had his best debate performance so far last night, sounding less robotic than he has in the past. But when asked by the moderators what previously un-discussed topic he’d like to raise (and he was the first candidate asked this question, so he was clearly taken by surprise), he reverted to form, piling platitude on platitude, building a veritable pagoda of platitudes.
Sanders may well win Iowa and New Hampshire, and it’s even more likely that Clinton will prevail in those Super Tuesday primaries in the South. But Super Tuesday also features primaries or caucuses in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado—states of the Great White North and the New West where Sanders could do very well. The battle between the Incrementalist Fox and the Revolutionary Hedgehog may be with us for some time to come.