Critic's Notebook: Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders Get Into Heated Exchange Over Henry Kissinger

Democratic Debate Milwaukee - H 2016
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Democratic Debate Milwaukee - H 2016

The Democratic candidates sound more like history professors than candidates in their first match-up after Sanders' New Hampshire victory.

During their sixth debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders might have taken a bit too seriously that the event was being televised by PBS.

How else to explain the bizarre turn the evening took in the second half when the moderators focused on foreign policy questions? Criticizing Clinton's record of supporting regime change, Sanders launched into a lengthy history lesson that included a detailed explanation of the U.S. involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh that led to the Shah taking power. Not long after, one of the fiercest exchanges of the evening concerned a subject that's clearly on the minds of most Americans at the moment: the legacy of Henry Kissinger.

That's right, valuable time was taken up by a heated back-and-forth about the former National Security Adviser/Secretary of State who's been out of government nearly 40 years, with Clinton pointing to his role in resuming relations with China and Sanders deriding his espousal of the Domino Theory. It ended with Sanders declaring, "I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend." What you mainly heard was the deafening sound of millions of toilets flushing as viewers took a collective bathroom break.

Things got even uglier toward the end, when they two got into an even more vicious battle, this time about Barack Obama. (What, do they think they're Republicans?) It stemmed from an innocent question from a Facebook user about which historical figures, both American and foreign, were most influential on the candidates. Sanders took the opportunity to deliver yet another historical lecture, this time about FDR and Winston Churchill. After dutifully agreeing about FDR and naming Nelson Mandela as her choice, Clinton launched into a blistering attack of Sanders' past criticisms of the president, which incited his most passionate rebuttal.

"Madame Secretary, that's a low blow," he fumed, making the title sound like an epithet. "Last I heard, we live in a democratic society" … one that he'd like to make democratic socialist, of course.

"One of us ran against Barack Obama, I was not that candidate," he added.

That the two Democratic candidates expended this much energy on Obama seemed as absurd as Marco Rubio robotically repeating his "25-second memorized speech," in the now immortal words of Chris Christie at the last GOP debate.

Up until then, the evening had been civil, even a bit boring, with Clinton having clearly received some coaching since her last performance. Unlike the last debate, she barely ever raised her voice, smiling and calmly responding to even the most provocative questions, such as moderator Gwen Ifill's query, "What are women missing about you?" referring to her failure to get more support from female voters. Clinton gave a reasoned, positive answer, saying that she didn't expect to get votes simply because of her gender, even if she was no doubt secretly trying to figure out how to run as a man. 

Clinton also pointed out that history was being made by the fact that — counting moderators Ifill and Judy Woodruff — women were the majority on the stage.

"Senator Sanders, you're in the minority, but we still want to hear from you," Woodruff playfully prodded, asking if he was worried about "thwarting history" if he prevented Clinton from being the nominee. "Well…" he drawled, before listing his many iconoclastic positions and concluding by saying, "I think a Sanders victory would be of some historical accomplishment as well." Touché, sir, and you didn't even mention you were Jewish.

Although Sanders had strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, he faces much tougher odds in such upcoming battles as Nevada and South Carolina, two states which have significant black populations. So it wasn't surprising that both candidates went out of their way to court minority voters, with Sanders beating Clinton to the punch by being the first to mention Flint, Michigan. Each repeatedly raised the issue of racial injustice, including the disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men in America's prisons. Sanders promised to reduce the rate of incarceration to the level of comparable countries by the end of his first term, and you could practically feel Republican strategists salivating.

Asked a pointed question about how much government would rise under their tenure if elected president, Sanders side-stepped the question. Clinton helpfully answered for him, explaining that under his administration it would rise by 40 percent.

As usual, the issue of a single-payer medical care system was raised, with Sanders repeating his statistic that under his plan, Americans would pay $500 more in taxes but pay $5,000 less in insurance premiums.

(Uh, can we get that in writing? Preferably notarized?)

"The numbers don't add up," Clinton pointed out, resorting to her familiar argument that even if Americans wanted what Sanders was promising (and that's a big if, judging by polls), they weren't actually going to get it.

Both candidates had strong moments. Criticizing Sanders' plan to make states contribute a good portion of the money necessary to pay for free college tuition, Clinton played to the liberal Milwaukee crowd and garnered big applause by saying, "I'm a little skeptical of your governor [Scott Walker]."

Sanders delivered an impassioned diatribe about Republicans wanting to reduce the role of government in every possible way, except when it came to women's right to choose. "If that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what is," he huffed.

At other times the debate seemed like the super-ego to the Republican id, with far more expressions of compassion than anger on display. Provocatively stating, "I want to talk to you about white people," Ifill asked the candidates if some white Americans have a right to feel resentful.

Clinton promised to do what she could to help coal miners, and both candidates expressed concern over the alarmingly rising rates of death among middle-aged white males. The next question posed … uh, excuse me, hold on a minute, I'll be right back.

OK, I'm back, sorry … just had to leave a message for my doctor requesting an immediate check-up.

Asked an astute Facebook question about which areas of government they would reduce, both candidates ducked. That is, until Sanders raised his hand and amended his answer by saying the Department of Defense. It was a courageous moment, even if it did seem like an afterthought.

But it was Clinton who scored biggest in the closing statements. Sanders delivered his usual speech denouncing economic injustice, and Clinton went to town.

"I am not a single-issue candidate," she thundered, going on to garner huge cheers with an impassioned defense of unions in the very state in which they've been under the most sustained attack. You can't say that she didn't know her audience.