Last night Lincoln Chafee, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Jim Webb faced off in Las Vegas for the first official Democratic Party presidential debate.
The candidacy, and growing popularity, of Bernie Sanders — a self-described democratic socialist — has piqued the interest of the US left, with many wondering how the Clinton-Sanders exchange would play out.
We laughed, we cried, but mostly we made fun of Jim Webb. Here are some post-debate thoughts from Jacobin contributors:
- Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin.
- Sarah Jaffe is a fellow at the Nation Institute and cohost of Dissent magazine’s “Belabored” podcast.
- Elizabeth Bruenig is a staff writer at the New Republic.
- Nicole Aschoff is an editor at Jacobin.
- Jesse A. Myerson is a New York–based activist and writer.
- Paul Heideman is a PhD student in the sociology department at New York University.
My main takeaway from the debate is that I’m terrified of Jim Webb. He seems like the type of guy who has a bunker in Montana stocked with preserved food and hand grenades.
Lincoln Chafee is pretty cute, though. I hope someone takes him home and adopts him. No comment on Martin O’Malley — close your eyes and pretend he doesn’t exist.
Bernie Sanders did okay. He’s a social democrat and a pretty conventional liberal when it comes to foreign policy. The conversation really stuttered for that reason when the debate moved away from domestic policy. We did spend about ten minutes talking about socialism and why the welfare state should be expanded. That’s the real value of Sanders — he opens up space for us to have these conversations.
The limitations of Sanders were again clear, but — in 2015, given the present state of the Left — it’s a campaign I hope everyone engages with seriously.
Hillary Clinton was almost a caricature of what we’ve come to expect from her: triangulating, skillfully dodging questions, but unable to shake the “establishment candidate” label. In other words, she looked “presidential.”
Perhaps most striking in the debate was the complete lack of mention of organized labor. Unions used to command even the token overtures of Republicans a few decades ago. It says a lot that even as the political winds seem to shift a little to the left, there’s no talk of card check or reversing the decline of labor.
This is the end result of the union bureaucracy’s strategy of accommodation toward the Democratic Party and the employers they should be fighting.
Seriously though, someone take away Jim Webb’s guns.
I’m still mostly thinking about the things not said. No mention at all of K-12 education, one of the most contentious topics of our time on the Left. Little mention of workers and none, I believe, of unions, even though Clinton’s comment that capitalism built the greatest middle class ever left Sanders (or hell, even O’Malley or Webb) the chance to say, “No, unions did that.” Barely any mention of the movements that allowed these candidates (or forced them) to shift left.
We got the usual “but will you bomb people” litmus tests, the eager smiles of the also-rans, and a truly bizarre moment where Webb appeared to live up to the parody articles, and perhaps most importantly, a rather long discussion of the merits of socialism.
Even if it’s not the definition of socialism that I’d prefer, in this country, with its history, it still feels significant.
That Tuesday’s Democratic debate was more substantive and civil than prior Republican debates is more inevitability than achievement; it would have been nigh impossible to match the circus the GOP has managed to erect this primary season. Relative substantiveness is, in this case, pretty cheap.
More interesting than what was discussed, at least in Clinton’s case, was what was left off the table — namely, her support for the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, also known as welfare reform. Why should welfare reform still be relevant to Clinton’s presidential push nearly twenty years later?
For one, she has never publicly come out against it, and has instead maintained a crisp silence on the subject after several years of open support. More importantly, many of the policies she is now being praised for — debt-free college for poor students, paid leave for mothers without employee benefits — are responding to conditions welfare reform either created or intensified.
Poor people who want to go to college lose benefits in several states, because classes (especially at four-year institutions) are not considered work — meaning the ones who do attend often take on mind-boggling amounts of debt. Perhaps as a result of the impossibility of higher education, many poor single mothers work to maintain their eligibility for benefits in jobs that do not offer employee benefits like paid maternity leave, and access much less in cash assistance than they could before welfare reform.
So, yes: America’s poor are suffering, and welfare reform is one of several culprits. The question that remains is whether or not you trust Clinton to reverse any of this, especially knowing that Bill himself ran for reelection vowing to fix the original law — and yet, here we are.
Underneath welfare reform and several of Clinton’s remarks during the debate (about an unwillingness to expand Social Security, for example, and resistance to universalizing free college) is one unified logic: that benefits should be small, temporary, and therefore politically fragile. Even if Clinton has no intention of destroying Social Security through privatization, whatever other alterations she might make (some degree of means-testing doesn’t seem out of the question, for example) could easily leave the program vulnerable to erosion over time.
If you like frangible programs that serve few and die quickly, the Clinton approach might be of interest — and in another four years, you can vote for Clinton again to try to recover everything that’s been lost since the last election.
Clinton resorted to red-baiting in record time. It was surprisingly satisfying to see Sanders force her to name the system and promise to “save capitalism from itself.” In an arena usually dominated by amorphous terms like the middle class, freedom, and fairness, Sanders inserted welcome specificity. He called for free higher education at all public institutions, a $15 an hour minimum wage, and a concerted war on “casino capitalism” and the 1 percent.
But the 1 percent, or the .01 percent, is a pretty easy target these days, and in many respects Sanders’s pitch last night sounded like New Deal liberalism as much as a socialist agenda. Health care for all, expanded Social Security, infrastructure investment, free higher education, constraints on the capitalist class — these were once considered by many to be part of a healthy capitalism.
Sanders’s liberal shadow was most apparent in his foreign policy promises: “I am prepared to take this country into war if necessary” — to defend the US or its allies. Sanders stood by his previous vote to bomb Kosovo and proudly listed his support for the odious invasion of Afghanistan — which has devastated the country and destabilized the region — as evidence of his resolve in military matters.
A certain degree of hawkishness seems to be a necessary ingredient for electability in the US, and Sanders seemed electable last night. Other than Clinton, who played the first-woman-president card liberally and spent a lot of time griping about the Republicans as a way to deflect Sanders, O’Malley seemed content to play back-up singer for Sanders, and Webb and Chafee were essentially no-shows.
Sanders’s electability is worth something, particularly in light of a major difference between Sanders’s election today and the Keynesian days of yore. Back when the welfare state and reining in the bankers were seen as common sense, there was a vibrant left and strong social movements on the ground, ready to demand more.
Those movements don’t exist today, but Sanders’s popularity shows their potential and the importance of his campaign for rebuilding the Left. Sanders’s didn’t shrink from the term democratic socialist — he embraced it and called for a political revolution, not once, but throughout the debate. For this he should be applauded.
It was difficult enough eight years ago when Hillary Clinton only had to defend her vote for the Iraq War. This time around, the insurgent candidate she faces, in important ways outpacing even the last guy, talks about “revolution” and “the working class” in the same sentence, and thus puts her in the unenviable position of having to defend capitalism itself.
Not to worry: Clintonian triangulation is nothing if not versatile. Reminding the audience that “we are not Denmark,” Clinton deployed the frame lately popularized by her husband’s one-time labor secretary, Robert Reich, that it is imperative to “save capitalism from itself.”
Sure she wants to “rein in the excess of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok and doesn’t cause the kind of inequalities we’re seeing in our economic system.” But the baby mustn’t go out with the bathwater: “We would be making a grave mistake to turn out backs on what built the greatest middle class in history,” she said, praying in aid “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that.” The characteristically Clintonian drive to pander to everyone at once was so strong as to enable her to gracefully drop the implication that there are no small Danish businesses and move right along.
She tipped her hand, though: pressed repeatedly to agree or disagree with Sen. Sanders’s preference for expanding Social Security, Clinton insisted that she’d rather “enhance the benefits for the poorest recipients of Social Security.” Similarly, as to whether she agrees with Sanders’s health care approach, extending Medicare to everyone, Clinton declined to answer (she doesn’t, though), insisting vaguely that “we agree on the goals, we just disagree on the means.”
Here was the vintage neoliberal approach with which the Clintons are justly associated, unchanged by the financial crises and social movements that have shifted the political terrain since its heyday in the 1990s. The means Sanders favors, the ones that work in Denmark and elsewhere, are universal programs aimed at providing the working class with relief from our dependence on capitalist firms for deriving the means of our own subsistence: public pensions so we aren’t at the mercy of a perfidious “savings industry” and public health care, so we go not merely by the grace of a sector Clinton cited as one of her most prized enemies, but which has contributed more than $11 million to her over her career. (With enemies like this . . .)
Clinton, instead, clings to the idea that small, politically vulnerable, means-tested programs are preferable to large, universal ones, and that the mediation of a marketplace of profit-obsessed firms is just what America’s sick need to help them heal.
The question of means is crucial, and we should take great heart that the grassroots foment — the movement for black lives, the climate movement, Occupy Wall Street, the low-wage worker movement — whose salience was in constant evidence throughout the debate, are wide open to unconventional means.
There were few surprises in the debates last night. Hillary Clinton tacked left with practiced poise, Bernie Sanders continued his denunciations of Wall Street and the 1 percent, and the other three candidates tried to make sure people would remember their names after the debate was over. There were no real fireworks, or even any particularly memorable lines.
The contrast with the Republican debates could not be greater. There, the other candidates have launched vicious attacks on Donald Trump in a desperate effort to dislodge his position as frontrunner. In doing so, they are supported by much of the party establishment, who are terrified of a Trump campaign furthering the party’s disintegration.
Next to this spectacle, the Democrats appear to be a well-organized party with few internal fractures and, indeed, little to worry about. For me, the most revealing moment of the entire debate actually came before it started, when Democratic National Committee vice-chair Donna Brazile talked about how excited she was about the Sanders campaign, and asked Anderson Cooper if he was “feeling the Bern.”
While it’s clear that Clintonistas everywhere are working for Bernie’s ruin, it’s not true that the party establishment views him as a threat, and certainly not one of the magnitude of a Trump. The hopes of some leftists that Bernie is intensifying the contradictions in the party are in vain.
That said, it was, of course, beautiful to watch Sanders defend socialism against Anderson Cooper’s questioning, and sublime to see Clinton declare her ambition to save capitalism from itself. Sanders’s candidacy will certainly create a larger audience for socialist politics, and it imperative we capitalize on that. The task for socialists is to figure out how to do it in a way that builds working-class struggle — the only force capable of realizing the ambitions Sanders is giving voice to.