Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D-NY) will face off for what will likely be the final time on a debate stage in Brooklyn's Navy Yard at 9p ET tonight.
The two presidential hopefuls have largely dispensed with niceties of late, but if Sanders —who has very little realistic chance left of securing the nomination — wants to make his criticisms count, he should follow the lead of his supporters and take on Clinton more directly than he ever has before.
I spoke with some of Sanders' supporters this past Tuesday afternoon, at the official opening of the campaign's Queens headquarters in a co-working space in Long Island City.
A few dozen volunteers mingled before being schooled on the art of "the personal story" from seasoned campaign staff veterans, who also taught the newbies about the finer points of canvassing and phonebanking as the final hours before tonight's crucial Democratic debate a few miles away in Brooklyn ticked away.
The Sanders campaign is pouring resources into New York, which holds its primary (strictly limited to Democrats who registered by last October) next Tuesday. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll has Sanders leading big among young people and independents, but still trailing Hillary Clinton by 14 points state-wide. Moreover, Clinton bests Sanders in densely-populated New York City and its surrounding suburbs.
As is typical of Bernie-related gatherings, supporters were filled with awe of the Vermont senator's "authenticity" and a passion for opposing "money in politics." For the most part, they said they would support Clinton if she were the nominee, though many felt the former secretary of state was a force of the "status quo" rather than "the revolution" promised by her democratic socialist opponent.
The special guest celebrity speaker, Ed Droste of the indie rock band Grizzly Bear,
spoke about his background as a standard-issue Democrat but that he "didn't realize how much corruption there was in both parties" until he came across Bernie Sanders' message. He added, "There is one thing that will not change if we don't elect Bernie and that is money corrupting the government."
When I asked Matt, a man in his late 20s, why he decided to offer up his time for this political campaign, he answered "urgency." He said he believed Clinton's supposed liberal turn this primary season is "only a matter of convenience for her" because of the pressure placed on her by Sanders' surprisingly resilient insurgency.
Last night, 27,000 people flocked to Manhattan's Washington Square Park to hear celebrities like Spike Lee, Tim Robbins, and Rosario Dawson hawk Sanders' political wares, before the candidate himself gave his typical stump speech centered around "billionaires buying elections," "free public college for all," and "rethinking the war on drugs" by ending the militarization of police and removing removing marijuana from the list of federally controlled substances.
There's no question that Sanders has been able to roust a level of enthusiasm among the progressive left unseen even during Barack Obama's rise to the presidency. But unlike Obama, who stunned Clinton with a series of early primary and caucus victories, Sanders has always been nipping at Clinton's heels, essentially running a more competitive than expected protest campaign rather than a ready-for-prime-time bid.
Though Sanders promised a "positive" campaign and has largely refrained from stinging attacks on his only rival for the nomination, the Democratic race has turned particularly nasty of late, with Sanders recently questioning whether Clinton is "qualified" to be president based on her regrettable vote in favor of the Iraq War and ties to "Wall Street."
In a demonstration of how even the hint of intra-party criticism has shaken the Clinton campaign, its chief strategist Joel Berenson had threatened to pull out of the next debate unless the Sanders campaign adjusted its "tone" (naturally leading to the Twitter backlash hashtag #tonedownforwhat). Berenson also slammed the Brooklyn-born senator for "campaigning like a Brooklynie," an odd insult coming from a senior staffer of a campaign that based its national headquarters in the old money enclave of Brooklyn Heights.
Sanders himself is coming off a tough week caused largely by unforced errors, highlighted by what's been nearly-universally described as a disastrous interview with the New York Daily News, where he had trouble answering basic questions about policies he's been hawking for the past year and a half. The Daily News followed up by officially endorsing Clinton, whom they described as a "superprepared warrior realist."
Sanders' supporters are motivated by the passion of protest and when they talk about Hillary Clinton, they're not nearly as skittish as Sanders is to be direct about what they see as her failings. If the ideas made relevant by his now fading campaign — which has thrived thus far on its oft-stated "authenticity" — are to have any lasting impact, Sanders would do well to follow his supporters lead and treat Clinton the way they do, with jaundiced skepticism.
Take Matt from Tuesday's gathering in Queens, who told me he believes Clinton will abandon many of the principles she's currently espousing, like criminal justice reform, which he says is just a smokescreen to cover her past acceptance of campaign contributions from the private prison industry. He added, "it's only when people start paying attention to where the money is coming from that she's suddenly against it."
The opportunities to underscore the few issues where Sanders truly stands apart from Clinton are ready and waiting to be scrutinized.
Like the fact that neither Hillary nor Bill Clinton can give a coherent assessment on the part they played in politically exploiting the national freakout over crime in the 1990s, which has contributed to both mass incarceration and an epidemic of overcriminalization mostly affecting low-income and minority communities. At last count, they were for 1994 crime bill, then regretted it, and now they just get pissy anytime someone brings it up in their presence.
Or perhaps Sanders could stop flailing around in a panic whenever a foreign policy question comes up on the debate stage, and show up with a prepared argument at least as polished as his "free college and a pony" crowdpleasers. He could lay out to the voters once and for all why a world with a less trigger-happy President Sanders would be a safer one than the one where a "superprepared warrior realist" with a track record of helping to create terrorist-haven failed states is in the White House.
Finally, though he's sworn he doesn't care about her "damn emails," Sanders continues to allow Clinton's predilection for behaving as though she is both above the law and beyond the reach of transparency to get a pass, out of fear that he would somehow be a pawn in a Benghazi-like Republican smear obsession.
Despite his current winning streak, a trouncing in the Empire State could spell the denouement of Bernie-mentum. And while Bernie would never be mistaken for a libertarian, he's the last candidate standing in either major party who is consistently anti-interventionist, as well as in favor of drug reform and criminal justice reform.
These crucially important platforms, all relevant to both progressives and libertarians, will be relegated to little-seen third party debates once Sanders packs it in. That alone is reason enough to hope Sanders debates like a Brooklynite tonight.