The fifth -- and perhaps final -- two-way debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders told us little about the candidates that we didn't already know. It just told us louder.
The civil tone of their early encounters has long since vanished. This was a debate with the gloves off, beginning with the first question and continuing right through closing statements. Hillary's relationship with Wall Street. Bernie's relationship with the NRA. Hillary's paid speeches to corporate bigwigs. Bernie's unreleased tax returns. Hillary's use of the term "super predators." Bernie's insensitivity to victims of gun violence. Like a greatest hits album, the debate replayed all the golden oldies, cranked up a few notches for the hard-of-hearing.
This late-inning face-off also showed how exhausted the candidates are after these endless months on the campaign trail. As a prelude to the New York primary, the debate was timed to give voters one last chance to do some comparison shopping. But for both participants, it also had the feel of a Broadway play at the end of its run. To a large extent the leading players were operating on fumes, called upon to summon one last blast of energy for the big closing number.
Did the Brooklyn debate accomplish anything for the would-be Democratic nominees? In Sanders's case, an opportunity was wasted. He failed to use the platform to undo the damage incurred in a recent interview with the New York Daily News, in which the senator's lack of familiarity with a variety of issues came under the microscope. Sanders could have used the debate to expand beyond his usual spiel against banks and corporations, to assure voters that he has sufficiently wide-ranging knowledge to do the job, but instead he trained his fire on Clinton. In focusing on matters of Clinton's "judgment," Sanders lost the chance to proactively promote his own presidential plausibility.
Although this was not Clinton's best debate of the season, she approached it with a clear strategy. "It's easy to diagnose the problem, it's harder to do something about the problem," went the message, spoken by the candidate not once but twice. Positioning herself as the pragmatic alternative to Sanders's pie-in-the-sky idealist, Clinton stuck to her mantra: Experience counts a hell of a lot more than hope. And she tailored her appeal to the voters of New York, reminding them throughout the evening of her senatorial service.
As a debater Clinton has been consistently superior to Sanders, as she was to Barack Obama in 2008, yet too often in these matches her fluency in the arena gets pressed into the service of political expediency. In Brooklyn she simultaneously grabbed onto Obama's coattails while suggesting that it was the president, not the secretary of state, who deserved blame for failures in Libya and Syria. Criticized for advancing a pro-fracking agenda as secretary of state, Clinton offered a lawyerly, unsatisfying disquisition whose subtleties went unappreciated by an audience of pro-environment Democrats. And when pressed to release the transcripts of her corporate speeches, she parroted the same unsatisfying response that she has been giving for months. If Hillary Clinton does become her party's nominee, she still has much work to do preparing for a general election debate opponent who will come after her hammer and tongs.
Sanders may have had the live audience on his side, but in a broader sense he has shown himself incapable of mastering the debate environment. The performance he gave in April is identical in tone to the performances he gave last fall. Sanders's inability to modulate his delivery may indicate that he's being true to himself, which is admirable, but it also reinforces the sense that he is unable to roll with the punches -- not to mention unable to play politics at the necessary level when you're running for president. While Clinton employs smiles and pauses and aggression and asides as part of her debating arsenal, Sanders kicks straight into indignation mode and stays locked there. Hillary tends to deflect criticism, Bernie just gets increasingly riled up.
The Brooklyn debate may not have changed any minds, but for either one of the candidates it was an excellent rehearsal for the general election debates that lie ahead. In its contentiousness the event felt more like a cross-party debate than a confrontation between ideological allies. If this ends up being the last debate of the 2016 primary season, the eventual Democratic nominee will be far better toned for the fall than the eventual Republican nominee. The last GOP debate was held six weeks ago, and it included four participants. The Republican nominee, whoever he may be, will apparently head into the fall never having taken part in a two-person debate. Clinton and Sanders, by contrast, have had five one-on-one encounters. When the general election debates kick off on September 26th in Las Vegas, this hands a distinct advantage to the Democrats.