By Adam Stromme
The Editorial Board of the New York Times aptly described the first Democratic Presidential Debate as the time when “The Grown Ups Take the Stage.” To those tired or disgusted with the antics of the Republican Party, putting it as such has hit a valuable tone with the American people writ large. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to a large extend personified important trends of where the Democratic party was, and may be heading, providing a fascinating historical gravitas for the debate. That being said, the debate necessarily left a whole lot on the table.
Unfortunately, it also had the marked tendency of leaving a lot off of the table. In light of the unmistakably progressive direction which this election season has taken the Democratic party– in no small part due to the tireless campaigning of Senator Sanders– one cannot help but feel that Hillary Clinton was not pressed on a lot of issues which matter to average Americans. This was even the case behind the table, when Senator Sanders’ appeal to press hard on issues consistently polling as most important to the American people was edited out of the CNN broadcast.
On everything from healthcare reform, to trade policy, to immigration and beyond, Clinton was at every opportunity given a chance to parse politics and provide a platform strong enough for her, and presumably the entire Democratic Party, to stand on against the Republicans. However, she largely did not do this. Despite ample opportunities and admirably targeted questions directed by Anderson Cooper, the only consistent consensus that appeared to arrive from Hillary Clinton was that her views had changed.
Not that this should discredit the Secretary. She did an excellent job managing the debate and ensuring that she took a moderate tone that would err on the safe side to preserve her electability in the general elections. That being said, one couldn’t help but notice the arguments from past experience morphing into arguments from authority. In and of itself, experience is an excellent source of credentials; Senator Sanders uses it to great effect concerning financial markets just as Governor O’Malley did concerning gun violence in Baltimore. But when the language such experience becomes couched in starts to act as a crutch for dealing with substantive political and demographic changes within the party, Mrs. Clinton runs the risk of appearing to dodge the question.
In closing this observation, one need only contrast this shrewd assessment of the election cycle with the ridiculous, shoe-kissing headlines praising Clinton that ran rampant across establishment front pages. She did an excellent job defending her record, but that is not the focal point of what has proven an especially volatile primary season.
There is a distressingly similar precedent for this on the other side of the aisle from the 2012 Presidential elections in Mitt Romney. Romney, a former Governor, also leaned heavily upon his time in elected office in order to provide an aura of establishment credibility. But doing so to avoid friction with the tea party just ended up giving him the perception of being a “flip-flopper” which threatened his credibility even if his establishment credentials remained entirely out of the equation.
With Clinton, most analysts make this fatal flaw: they assume the forces drawing people out to vote will be similar to the previous election cycle. They are wrong. While the same general principles no doubt apply as with any election, the specific forces capable of making or breaking the election are much different. Now that politicians are keying in on issues that stand at the forefront of many American’s concerns, they will need to follow through with concrete proposals. Clinton did not do this. Although she did get her foot in the door with progressive Democrats, and indeed the big questions vexing Main street, she has a lot more to prove before she can speak confidently to the progressive Democratic caucus in nearly the same way that Sanders does.