Democratic Debate: Substance, Style, or Both?

The hospitalized old woman said, "Doctor, I don't understand a word you said, but you say it so nice." Hillary was clear and self-contained. Bernie was clear and uncontained. He brought to mind Fran Lebowitz who once said, "The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting." She brought to mind an epigram I remember from junior high school, "Always be sincere whether you mean it or not."

Bernie raised his hand numerous times in order to be called on by the moderators. He almost jumped out of his seat when Hillary distorted his positions on health care or guns. It seemed like he was unable to listen at all to what was said - whether by Hillary, the moderators, or those YouTube questioners. She seemed to listen to everything, process information clearly, transforming attacks into thoughtful and forceful responses.

What does this mean about the relationship, if any, between style and substance? Bernie's style was that of an anxious school child bursting to be heard by the teacher. After all, he had the right answer to every question. He raised his hand politely but often.

Hillary absorbed Bernie's barbs by liquidizing his rage and frustration, building rejoinder after rejoinder. She wasn't as condescending as Reagan was with Mondale in 1984, but she was not that different. Her manner made Bernie seem like a sputtering country bumpkin constrained by the rules of engagement.

Overtly he was not a listener. Both had talking points, but Hillary reached hers in more artful ways than Bernie could ever hope for.

To me, Bernie seemed like he was giving a speech, rather than having a debate. His message was clear and consistent, but at times his delivery was clumsy. Her message was not so much in her content but in her style, her clear ability to convey confidence. He kept trying to take whatever she said one step further, even when they agreed.

So what are we left with, at least after that particular encounter?

We are left with several things to think about:

Bernie Sanders has strong and unwavering convictions about corporate greed and what it's doing to the American fabric. His views were always thus. And in that sense he is the opposite of Hillary Clinton, whose history is littered with shifting positions on health care, on the war in Iraq, on negotiating with enemy leaders, and on regulating Wall Street and big banks. Again, her motto should be, "Always be sincere whether you mean it or not."

Then there is style, and how it may affect substance. Secretary Clinton sounded presidential, forceful, and thoughtful. She also did something she hasn't done before - got under her opponent's skin. Her attacks on Senator Sanders unnerved him, contributed to his behaving more like a defensive schoolboy eager to be called on by the teacher.

What does this say about how either of them might govern as president? I worry that Sanders would not make a good listener, so convinced is he of what are the essential issues. His legislative history however, is one of willingness to reach across the aisle. Clinton looked forward to listening to others, saying that she would go anywhere in the US to find experts to help her govern.

Bernie presented a procrustean approach to political life, trying to fit every idea into his set of preconceptions. And while his convictions are not different from mine, they smack of a troublesome rigidity, especially after eight years of a thoughtful President Obama - who himself followed eight years of a reactive non-thinking George W Bush.

Are we left with clarity and consistency vs deception and inconsistency? Are we left with rigidity vs flexibility? Can one hold convictions and still listen to the ideas of others? Those are questions central to the upcoming primary elections.

We are left with two different people, often dovetailing, who would put different stamps on a presidency.

I feel the Bern message but have trouble with Bernie the messenger. I feel Hillary the messenger, but have trouble with inconsistent Hillary messages.