Presidential Debate

Tonight's Democratic Debate Between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is Really a Debate About President Obama

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whitehouse.gov

Tonight's Democratic debate in New Hampshire is one of four additional contests scheduled just this week, and it will be the first to feature candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders head to head, without Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley on stage.

That these four officially sanctioned debates were added so late in the contest is, among other things, a recognition by Democrats that their primary race is something few predicted six months ago: a real race.

Bernie Sanders, the self-declared democratic socialist from Vermont, has outperformed almost everyone's expectations in both support and fundraising, drawing Hillary Clinton to a virtual tie in the Iowa caucus this week after grinding down her 30-point lead. It was an impressive showing, and revealed both that Clinton is weaker than was widely assumed, and that Sanders and his message have a large audience in the Democratic party.

Hillary Clinton is still the strong favorite to win the nomination, but even still, the debates will serve as a forum to publicly hash out the future of the Democratic party.  

Clinton is running as the practical, pragmatic candidate, the status-quo incrementalist in part because that's who she is, but in part because that's the direction she believes that's the direction the party should go.

Sanders, conversely, is running explicitly as a revolutionary who would pursue wholesale overhauls of everything from the tax system to health care to campaign finance.

That Sanders has been so unexpectedly successful with this message is a testament to his authenticity and charm, and his surprising effectiveness as a campaigner.

But it's also a reminder that there remains a pervasive and widespread dissatisfaction on the left with the status quo, some of which has to do with the general state of politics and polarization in Washington, but much of which is bound up in a brewing frustration with the Obama administration.

Hillary Clinton is explicitly running as the candidate who will protect and, if politically possible, carefully build on the liberal gains made under President Obama. This is clearest when it comes to health care, where she and Sanders have been squabbling over Sanders' support of single payer.

"We have accomplished so much already," she said in a debate last month. "I do not to want see the Republicans repeal it, and I don't to want see us start over again with a contentious debate. I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act and improve it."

Defend. Build on. Improve. This is the kind of language that Hillary Clinton consistently uses when talking about the Obama administration's legislative victories. It wouldn't be perfectly accurate to say she's running for Obama's third term, but it wouldn't unfair either. The point that she's made, explicitly and implicitly, through out the campaign is that if you like what the Obama administration has done, and want to see that work preserved and protected, Hillary Clinton is your candidate.

That so many Democrats seem disinclined to stick with her suggests their frustration with the Obama administration's policies and approach to politics.

So tonight's debate won't just be a battle over the future of the Democratic party, and whether it will choose the path of Hillary Clinton and the status quo or Bernie Sanders and his revolution. It will be a debate over the merits of the present administration, and its legacy in the Democratic party's imagination.  

Conservatives and libertarians might be confused by the progressive left's frustration with President Obama, who is, for better or worse, one of the most successful and consequential liberal presidents in the modern era by most any measure.

But in many ways, it resembles the same sort of frustration with President Bush and congressional Republicans that boiled up on the right during President George W. Bush's administration, erupted with the Tea Party in 2010, and continues to reverberate throughout the right in all sorts of surprising and unexpected ways. That's something that Republicans should keep in mind in their assessments of the left, especially if they believe they might win the presidency in November. And it's that Democrats should watch out for this season as well. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton may represent Democrats' current choices, but folks like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump may be the better illustrations of the party's longer-term future. 

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  1. That so many Democrats seem disinclined to stick with her suggests their frustration with the Obama administration’s policies and approach to politics.

    I think it has more to do with her specifically. Obama would likely win a third term (although admittedly that might have more to do with him than his policies).

    1. This is what I’m thinking. While Bernie does have some grass movement support, a not so small part of his support comes from the distaste voters have for Hillary. If Joe Biden had jumped in and ran on the same “continue Obamas policies” stance he would probably be in the lead.

      1. The legs to the HRC stool are probably something like this:
        a) inherited sympathy from blacks who think they are re-electing WJC42
        b) women of a certain age who don’t want to wait longer for a woman to be president
        c) band-waggoners who can lock out the opposition if they consolidate early enough (Dem version of many GWB43 supporters)
        Between these sympathies and the electoral college, the WH is hers to lose.

        1. Could probably add to that the group that has watched so much MSNBC and the like that they instinctively regard any disparaging words against her, regardless of what about or who made them, as a right wing attack by racist, sexist, homophobes.

        2. I don’t agree. The electoral college “lock” for Democrats doesn’t look so hot these days. A lot of states have gone from tossups to GOP, and from Dem locks to tossups.

          Plus, one party rarely keeps the White House for three terms in a row. And I don’t sense a feeling of “four more years like the last eight!” from anyone but diehard Democrats.

        3. The legs to the HRC stool are probably something like this:
          a) inherited sympathy from blacks who think they are re-electing WJC42

          Why just blacks? I’ve been pretty sure for some time that the main reason she has support from anyone is that they assume Bill will be calling the shots.

  2. President Obama, who is, for better or worse, one of the most successful and consequential liberal presidents in the modern era by most any measure

    Has he finally deported twice as many people as GWB?

  3. That Sanders has been so unexpectedly successful with this message is a testament to his authenticity and charm, and his surprising effectiveness as a campaigner how shitty Hillary Clinton is.

    FIFY.

  4. Conservatives and libertarians might be confused by the progressive left’s frustration with President Obama, who is, for better or worse, one of the most successful and consequential liberal presidents in the modern era by most any measure.

    FTFY

  5. Maybe it’s quitting time at work and I’m in a pissy mood, but:

    “Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, has outperformed…”

    Why does almost every article seem to include some explanation like that. I’m pretty sure that everyone who would read an article like this already has a clue about him and socialism and Vermont. Why not include a similar explanation for other people in the article?

    Hillary Clinton, the shrill harpy from the bowels of hell, is still…

    Martin O’Malley, the guy who apparently was running for President at some point…

    George W. Bush, the guy who exists simply to make liberals believe in the anti-Christ…

    Donald Trump, the human embodiment of clown shoes…

    1. I blame it on “Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma?”.

      1. And its cousin, The Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia.

  6. Personally, I think that if you’re shocked that a socialist is doing well with the Democrat party you haven’t really met that many Democrats.

    They never seem to remember things like the Night of Long Knives, but maybe one day socialists will learn what those ‘Top Men’ will do to their useful idiots after they’re no longer useful. Sadly, history has shown that socialists are incapable of learning from their mistakes.

    1. im not sure it’s that they dont remember so much (although they dont, but thats a symptom of:) as were still pretty much the same animals weve been for at least all of recorded history, so we keep making the same mistakes.

  7. I watched the last GOP debate, and consequently now consider my civic-duties fulfilled for the remainder of this election cycle.

    that said, I wish both of these candidates the best of luck, and sincerely hope neither is struck by lightening or attacked by a swarm of rabid bats.

    1. I am a well wisher in that I don’t wish them any particular harm.

  8. Tonight is the Democrat version of a bs avalanche. The Rs have had theirs. Now the Ds get to clog the airways with their nonsense. I don’t think I have ever seen a more pitiful assembly of candidates by both parties. Eliminate the hustlers, outright crooks and the otherwise incompetent, and you’ve got exactly no one running for the highest office in the land. What a sad commentary on America. At least Trump and Sanders are an indication that some portion of the electorate is unhappy. Of course, neither one of them has a chance to get the nomination. Billions of dollars from the multitude of moneyed interests that control the government hang in the balance. Interlopers like Trump and Sanders will not be tolerated. I love my country, but my government and those that run it leave a lot to be desired.

    1. It is the most bizarre presidential election that I can remember. Maybe the most bizarre since, I don’t know, 1912?

  9. Why do I always think stories like this will be more interesting than they turn out to be?

  10. “It wouldn’t be perfectly accurate to say she’s running for Obama’s third term, but it wouldn’t unfair either.”

    Was this written by the same people who paid for the espanol add in the middle of the article? It’s not English. So, let’s Make America Great Again!!!

  11. The contest is about who is the biggest communist.

  12. alt-text: Step back bitch, your beaver pelt is rank!

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