Critic's Notebook: Clinton and Sanders Get Aggressive Over "Progressive"

The two candidates squared off just like the Republicans, only nicer.

Now that the young whippersnapper Martin O'Malley was out of the room, those seniors Hillary and Bernie could finally come out swinging.

In their first head-to-head debate, taking place in-between the Iowa caucuses and the imminent New Hampshire primary, the two Democratic presidential candidates were far more combative than in their previous meet-ups. But unlike Republicans, who spew insults and personal attacks, they used a different approach. They tried to make each other feel guilty.

That was most evident in their sparring over Sanders' attacks on Clinton for being the "establishment candidate" and lambasting her history of speaking engagements at Wall Street firms for astronomical fees.

Expertly channeling Joseph Welch during the Army-McCarthy hearings, Clinton turned the tables on her opponent.

"I don't think these attacks by insinuation are worthy of you," she said in an aggrieved tone, only forgetting to add "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Clinton may have pushed it too far, however, garnering boos from the crowd when she went on to label his attacks an "artful smear."

Clinton added that she's spoken to many organizations since her government service ended, including the American Camping Society. (Which begs the question, really? What, Bear Grylls wasn't available? )

"Obviously we've touched a nerve," said moderator Rachel Maddow after the bitter exchange, sounding like a smug couple's therapist.

Sanders upped the evening's psychoanalytic quotient later on, when he responded to a question about which foreign country most concerned him. He cited North Korea, describing both its dictator and the country as paranoid.

Not to be too paranoid about it, Bernie, but you might want to beef up your computer firewall protection right about now.

The debate's first segment featured a protracted argument about the definition of "progressive" and whether Clinton was one. She retreated to her familiar slogans — "A progressive is someone who makes progress," "I'm a progressive who gets things done," etc. — before finally symbolically smacking Sanders upside the head by accusing him of being the "self-proclaimed gatekeeper of progressivism."

Attacking Clinton for her support by Super PACs, Sanders trumpeted his support by the common folk, repeatedly citing $27 as the average donation his campaign received. It was as if he were disappointed that the figure wasn't actually lower.

There was no shortage of water-cooler moments. Asked about his independent 1988 run for Congress that resulted in a Republican winning in Vermont, Sanders scored big laughs by pointing out that "in that race the Democrat was the spoiler, not me."

Clinton, when asked if she would release the transcripts of her many paid speeches, responded, "I'll look into it" (which translates to "Only if I really, really have to").

During a heated argument about Sanders' favorite subject, the evils of Wall Street, Clinton advised that we "shouldn't concentrate on one street," as if the problem could be solved by a clean-up crew well equipped with brooms. And when they sparred on foreign policy, Sanders repeatedly cited the only real weapon in his arsenal: his 2002 vote against the Iraq War.

"I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so," he said. Well, not really, but he might as well have.

Sanders did go out of his way to be conciliatory at times, such as when he was asked about the Des Moines Register's recent editorial calling for an audit of the chaotic Iowa caucus.

"I agree with the Des Moines Register," Sanders answered, adding, "but let's not blow this out of proportion."

He added, "I love and respect the caucus process in Iowa, and I don't have to say it, because they voted already."

Well, that's fine for him, but there are some who might object to coin flips reportedly being used to determine the results in no less than six of the state's precincts. Miraculously, they all went in Clinton's favor, indicating that instead of running for president she should be hitting the craps tables in Las Vegas.

When asked about the potential threat to her campaign posed by her e-mail scandal, Clinton actually managed to say, "I have absolutely no concern about it whatsoever" with a straight face. Sanders doubled down on his first debate declaration that he didn't give a damn about her e-mails, although moderator Chuck Todd bizarrely used the word "darn" when quoting him, as if MSNBC had suddenly turned into the Disney Channel.

A clearly grateful Clinton returned the favor moments later, after Sanders sputtered through a defense of his campaign's recent alleged underhanded activities. Asked if she wanted 30 seconds to comment on the issue, she responded with a smile and a forceful "No!"

Unlike the GOP debates, which have used Clinton as a veritable punching bag, the two Democratic candidates barely bothered to mention their Republican opponents. Although toward the end, Sanders couldn't resist, saying, "On our worst days, we are 100% better than any Republican candidates."

Still, for all the sparring, what was most evident is that the two candidates aren't really that far apart on the issues. At one point, after Clinton defended her position supporting the death penalty under certain circumstances, Sanders even said, "I hear what the secretary said, and I can understand it."

Doesn't he know that he's running for president?   

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