THE PUBLIC EYE:New York Showdown: Clinton vs Sanders

Friday April 15, 2016 - 02:07:00 PM

If it’s been awhile since you watched Hillary Clinton debate Bernie Sanders, you would have been struck by the tone evidenced in the April 14th New York event. After 8 encounters, the two Democratic candidates don’t like each other. That animosity produced a contentious two-hour debate. 

Presentation: Recently, I asked a PR specialist to describe the four leading Presidential candidates. She said that Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are “nightmares,” because they have huge presentation deficiencies that they, apparently, don’t want to fix. In her opinion, Bernie Sanders seems old and angry; she noted his hunched shoulders. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton, comes across as an adult, a polished veteran of public events. 

In the April 14th debate, Sanders seemed to be angry at Clinton – or perhaps “the system” – and occasionally resorted to sarcasm. Hectoring. 

Clinton seemed relaxed. She made her points and responded effectively to Sanders’s thrusts but also remembered to smile and, several times, chuckled. 

Whether by instinct or design, Sanders talked down to Clinton. Not a good strategy when you are debating the first serious female Presidential candidate. 

Theme: There were no surprises. Sanders believes the US economic system is rigged and most of his policy initiatives are addressed at remedying the split between the wealthy 1 percent and the rest of America. He wants to dream big and take on the biggest problems (inequity, global climate change, Wall Street…) with big ideas. His strategy to accomplish this involves “a political revolution.” 

One of my earlier criticisms of Clinton’s speeches and debate performance was the absence of a dominating theme, a rejoinder to “the system is rigged.” On April 14th her promise was to “knock down the barriers to opportunity.” She effectively wrapped herself in the Obama Administration, indicating that her policies built upon those of Obama. 

Sanders has a more coherent theme. His problem is that as the debate ran on, Clinton made it appear that Sanders doesn’t know how to accomplish his main objectives (such as breaking up the big banks). And, there was a suggestion that for the last seven years, Clinton has been working with Obama, while Sanders was off on the fringe of Washington politics. 

Issues: To CNN’s credit, a wide range of issues were covered, and the moderators did a good job of asking follow-up questions. 

1. Breaking up the big banks: Sanders segued from a vague explanation of how he would break up enormous Wall Street institutions to an attack on Clinton, accusing her of being a tool of Wall Street (particularly Goldman Sachs). Clinton responded by saying “there is no example” where financial contributions influenced her vote. She said the way to break up big banks is follow the procedures spelled out in the Dodd-Frank bill and to let the regulators do it. 

2. Minimum Wage: Sanders effectively slammed companies, like Verizon, for low pay and for moving jobs out of state or out of the country. Both candidates are for increasing the minimum wage: Sanders would raise it to $15 immediately and Clinton would raise it to $15 gradually. 

3. Guns: Clinton came out strongly for restrictive gun legislation. When she accused Sanders of doing the will of the gun lobby, Sanders laughed and Clinton quipped, “This is no laughing matter.” 

4. Fracking: During a series of questions about energy and the environment, Clinton and Sanders revealed basic differences about fracking. Sanders position is that global climate change is an existential crisis and, therefore, “incrementalism is not enough.” Clinton pointed out that the Obama strategy was to get the nation off of coal power and move to renewables; in this context, use of natural gas (produced by fracking) was a bridge strategy. 

5. Social Security: Both Clinton and Sanders would defend Social Security by lifting the income “cap.” However, Clinton would explore other options. 

6. Women’s Rights: Towards the end of the debate, Clinton gave a strong defense of women’s rights (abortion, reproductive health). 

7. Regime Change: Sanders accused Clinton of advocating “regime change” and said that this had been disastrous in Libya (and would have been disastrous in Syria). Clinton that said Libya and Syria were the call of the Obama White House and she was part of that team. 

8. Israel: Sanders said that the Israeli response to the insurrection in Gaza was disproportionate. Clinton pointed out that she, as Secretary of State, had negotiated the Gaza ceasefire with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas. 

Summary: Sanders accused Clinton of adhering to “establishment politics.” He wants to break with this, to lead a “revolution” that has the courage to take on the big issues. 

Clinton responded, "It's easy to diagnose the problem, it's harder to do something about the problem." She portrayed herself as building on the progress of the Obama Administration. 

If you came into the April 14th debate as an advocate of Clinton or Sanders, nothing happened that would change your mind. If you were undecided, you probably thought Clinton won because of her demeanor and the experience she conveyed. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at