Reaction to the Democratic candidates’ debate has now split into two definite camps. The political pros and commentators all believe Clinton won hands down, probably clinching the Democratic nomination in the process. All over but for sweeping up the confetti. On the other hand, a focus group of ordinary Democrats hosted by Fox News, and Drudge Report’s online poll, both think Bernie Sanders won by a wide margin.
I think they are both right, in different ways. The policy wonks think Clinton won, because she won in terms of a formal debate. She had the strongest answers, she had the best command of the facts, she was never stumped or put onto the back foot. Sanders won the likability contest. As I have argued before, the likability contest is what really matters in terms of votes. So I give the win to Sanders.
At first glance, Sanders was doing it all wrong. His manner reminded me of Queen Victoria’s complaint about Gladstone: that when he addressed her, he addressed her as though he were speaking to a public meeting. Sanders had no notion that he had to tone down the voice and the gestures for TV. On the other hand, perversely, that might have helped him on likability. Lack of slickness can be a plus.
In declaring their winners, both sides focus on the same moment, the moment that will live in history. It was when Sanders volunteered that he and the voters are sick of hearing about Hillary’s “damned emails.”
To the politicos, this was, as Sanders himself called it, a political blunder. He threw away his best card against Hillary, as they see it. They ask if he really wants the nomination.
But didn’t it make him look like a good guy--refusing the chance to calumniate against an opponent? No dirty politics. Not acting like a politician at all, in a cycle when everyone seems to be fed up with politicians. Why wouldn’t you love him for it?
At the same time, it also made him look like a grown up, and everyone else, including Clinton, like children. At that moment, he owned Clinton. He was the kindly father or grandfather coming to the aid of a little girl. So who looks presidential now?
There was also a certain shrewdness to it. Sanders said everyone is tired of hearing about the emails, and wants to talk issues. Now, what is really the best way to put the email issue behind us? Who is talking issues in this campaign? Answer: a) don’t nominate Clinton, and b) Bernie Sanders.
In any case, Sanders does not need to talk about the emails. Everyone else is. In fact, by refusing to, he ensured that the emails were the lead-off story coming from the debate. Crazy like an old grey fox.
Some say Sanders also stumbled in refusing to agree to tougher gun control. Again, these would be people who think his main appeal is ideological—that his constituency is the left wing of the Democrats. No, I think his appeal is that he is prepared to say right out, for example, that he is a socialist, as he did again during the debate, when this is understood to be a suicidal move politically. This marks him as honest and principled, not a cynical politician. By the same token, diverging now and then from the far-left line reinforces this perception, that Bernie Sanders is in politics for principle, and not for power.
Many of those pros who think Hillary won also believe that the other contenders were weak, that they would have been buried in the Republican debates. That may well be so. Those on the left are less often challenged on their beliefs, notably by the press, and so they do not learn to think about them closely and are not that well-equipped to defend them if they ever are challenged.
But I think Sanders would be formidable.