Critic's Notebook: Clinton and Sanders Clash on Issues (Not Private Parts) in Tense Debate

Clinton Sanders Debate March 6 - GETTY - H 2016

Clinton and Sanders were so substantive that if aliens were watching from outer space they would conclude that Republicans and Democrats were actually two different species of earthlings.

It's a safe bet that Sunday night's Democratic presidential debate won't get anywhere near the ratings of the recent GOP's. And why should it? After all, when will the Democrats learn that to attract a big audience you need to hurl vicious insults and brag about the size of your genitals?

Instead, ho hum, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton talked about the issues. The debate was serious and substantive — so much so that if aliens were watching from outer space they would conclude that Republicans and Democrats were actually two different species of earthlings.

The event was held in Flint, Mich., lending an intended dramatic urgency to the first segment, which concentrated on the city's ongoing water crisis. The two candidates, who presumably were drinking bottled water, were hardly in disagreement on the issue, with both calling for the governor's head — I mean, for him to resign — and attempting to top each other in sound-bite rhetoric.

"It is raining lead in Flint!" Clinton thundered.

"Children of America should not be poisoned!" blasted Sanders, which is not exactly a controversial position.

When asked whether she would fire the head of the EPA if she was president, Clinton responded, "I would certainly be launching an investigation," and you could tell she was relishing the opportunity to be on the other side for a change. (Donald Trump would have promised to personally waterboard him, and with lead-tainted water to boot.) By the time the exchange was over, both candidates had only fallen short of promising that Evian would be flowing from every city tap.

But the Kumbaya moment — Clinton even shouted "Amen to that!" after one of Sanders' safe water comments — ended around the half-hour mark, when Sanders pounced on Clinton, who had fielded a relatively innocuous question about job creation.

"I'm very glad that Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on the issue," he announced, obviously pleased to unleash his well-rehearsed line. He then angrily denounced her past support of free-trade agreements, as her adoring gaze toward him suddenly turned to daggers shooting out of her eyes. Somewhere, Bill Clinton was shuddering with recognition.

A clearly prepared Hillary fired back by bringing up Bernie's opposition to the auto bailout, essentially covering him with chum and throwing him into the shark-laden Michigan waters. Sanders was not so much feeling the Bern as the heat, so he pivoted to his safe zone.

"While we're on Wall Street," he began — as if he's ever left it — going into his well-worn routine about Clinton failing to release the transcripts of her paid speeches. Her steely expression expressed annoyance about not getting paid for this gig, and then she fell into Sanders' trap by trotting out her standard response that she would release them if all the other candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, did.

"I release it. Here it is. There ain't nothing,'" Bernie shouted wildly, to huge cheers from the audience.

And speaking of the audience, can we talk about them for a minute? Yes, there were shouts, occasional boos and a few murmurs of disapproval. But they weren't yelling as if at a football game, feeling pissed off at having their beer cut off at the end of the third quarter. This debate was a civil affair, with the candidates getting cut off not by a loud buzzer, like they were in The Gong Show, but rather by moderator Anderson Cooper gently murmuring "Thank you" until they got the point.

Questions were posed not only by Cooper but also by African-American CNN anchor Don Lemon, who, per the unwritten rules of presidential debates, posed the questions dealing with race (among other topics). Playing the bad cop to Anderson's good cop, he was often prosecutorial, and kept both candidates in the hot seat by making such inquiries as "What racial blind spots do you have?" (Here's a tip: this would not make a good party game). Clinton fielded it with her usual finesse and empathy, having clearly learned a thing or two from her husband.

"I can't pretend to have the experience that you have had and others have had," she said.

"When you're white, you don't know what it's like to live in a ghetto," Sanders pointed out, clearly eager to move on.

Both of them bragged about their experiences in the Civil Rights movement, although Sanders laid claim to the upper hand.

"Most candidates for president of the United States don't put this on their résumé," he said coyly, before proceeding to do just that by explaining that he had been arrested as a result of his protesting the University of Chicago's segregated housing.

Rather than from YouTube celebrities and animated characters, there were questions from people in the auditorium, all acting with quiet dignity as they sought answers to issues which had affected them personally. It lent a genuine emotionalism to the proceedings, whether the queries came from the mother of a child made sick by the tainted Flint water or the father of a fourteen-year-old girl seriously injured in the recent Kalamazoo mass shooting.

The latter led to one of the most potent exchanges, with Clinton delivering an impassioned speech about the evils of the gun manufacturers and none too subtly contrasting herself with Sanders' past support for legal immunity for gun-makers and sellers. He pointed out that Clinton's position would essentially result in the end of gun manufacturing in America, which he would not get behind.

"Nobody has a magical solution to this problem," he admitted.

The most wonkish exchange came during a heated back-and-forth about the Export-Import Bank, a topic so arcane that Cooper felt the need to explain to the viewing audience exactly what it was. Sanders, who unlike the majority of Democrats, opposes it, made the GOP's day by announcing, "I hate to break the bad news, but Democrats are not always right." Meanwhile, viewers were probably checking to see what Trump was tweeting about it, even as he was asking his ghostwriters what to say.

One thing that you have to admit about Sanders: He's not afraid to tell it like it is. When both candidates were asked whether they support fracking, Clinton delivered one of her complex, have-it-both-ways responses that conveyed the message that she supported it, but not really.

"My answer is a lot shorter," Sanders piped in. "I don't support fracking." When Cooper followed up by asking if the Democratic governors who did support it were wrong, Sanders shouted, "Yes!" However you feel about the issue, it was enough to make you verklempt.

Sanders repeatedly brought up topics relating to the 1990s, forcing Clinton to defend her husband's administration and, in the case of the 1994 crime bill, run away from it. The uncomfortable rehashing made one think that she would ask Bill to join her onstage for the next debate.

At one point, Clinton declared, "A president can't go ordering folks around," and one could imagine Trump shouting at the screen, "Just watch me!" But it was Sanders who got off the best line of the evening.

"If you watch the Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in mental health," he said, sounding exactly like the sort of Borscht Belt comic he so closely resembles.