So, that happened. Whatever remained of the genteel rivalry between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has probably been ground to dust in the wake of a New Hampshire primary mollywhopping that's left Clinton's campaign grasping for answers. Thursday night, it was on Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff to wring out a polite and informative exchange at PBS' Wisconsin debate -- no small task given that the events of this week have left both candidates' egos more than a little bruised.
Sanders' win in New Hampshire was not just a blowout by margin-of-victory standards, it was demographically comprehensive, leaving Clinton without much of an indication as to where her message was resonating. Clinton was left to ponder how the candidate who famously cracked the glass ceiling in 2008 was all but abandoned by women voters -- especially young women, who broke in droves for Sanders.
With the Nevada caucuses in the offing, the Clinton team was quick to reset expectations. In a memo, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook predicted a closer race than expected while signaling the campaign's strategy going forward:
Whereas the electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire are largely rural/suburban and predominantly white... the March states better reflect the true diversity of the Democratic Party and the nation -- including large populations of voters who live in big cities and small towns, and voters with a much broader range of races and religions.
In other words, Clinton was going to go hard in pursuit of winning the African-American vote. Sanders has, in fits and starts, worked to win over black voters who began the campaign looking somewhat askance at the Vermont senator, but what progress he had made was thrown into arrears this week after the Congressional Black Caucus' political action committee endorsed Clinton -- and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero, straight up cheap-shotted Sanders by insinuating the senator's civil rights bona fides were a sham:
"I never saw him, I never met him. I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years -- 1963 to 1966," he said. "I was involved in the sit-ins, the freedom rides, the March on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery. I directed the board of education project for six years. I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton."
Meanwhile, the issues that have gone undiscussed at these debates keep piling up. Last week's MSNBC debate got bogged down in the sort of personality-and-process questions that only a tatty political reporter tasked with monitoring the Grand Narrative could love. For Americans who truly want to penetrate the policy differences between Sanders and Clinton, these debates have left them bereft. But Ifill and Woodruff had a good chance to bring back some much-needed substance.
And at Thursday's debate, the moderators began with a game attempt at steering things in the right direction by asking Sanders a question about whether he believes the size and role of government should be limited in any way. The candidates, however, were soon back onto last week's argument over who had the better liberal bona fides, and whether Sanders' universal health care plan was worthy of skepticism or merely being demonized.
"The last thing we need is to throw our country into a contentious debate about health care again," Clinton said, in the midst of staging a contentious debate over health care.
Soon enough, however, process questions bloomed. Clinton took a question about whether she is concerned about Sanders winning 55 percent of the women's vote in the New Hampshire primary, and another about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright's "special place in hell" question. Sanders actually took this question: "Do you worry at all that you will be the instrument of thwarting history ... that she may be the first woman president?" (Suffice it to say, he is not worried about it.)
Eventually, the debate tracked back to issues such as criminal justice reform, college affordability and immigration. Strangely enough, when the debate arrived at these more substantive moments, the two candidates seemed to be in some sort of competition to see who could agree with the other more. It remains clear that Clinton's essential policy disagreement with Sanders is that his promises are unfeasible in a world where Republicans control both houses of Congress.
It was perhaps, to the credit of Ifill and Woodruff that an air of "PBS nice" managed to prevail. Near the end, however, as the candidates broke into a discussion about who has been more supportive of President Barack Obama, some aggression returned. Clinton accused Sanders of being a persistent critic of the president, while Sanders responded that his disagreements were civil and that he'd always supported Obama's candidacy. But in the end, they fell out angrily over the matter.
"What I am concerned about," said Clinton, "is not disagreement on issues, saying 'this is what I'd rather do, I don't agree with the president on that.' Calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012, you know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements."
Sanders' riposte: "Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate."
So after a brutal week, some heat remains. In this race, the process and the personality differences are often proving to be more divisive than the actual politics, and for that reason, Clinton and Sanders are now in a battle with sharper teeth -- and closer terms -- than anyone expected when this primary began.
Also on this week's podcast, we circle back to another big story -- the Flint water crisis. This time we're talking about something positive: how Flint's residents and local activists may actually achieve something that's been lacking in other similar lead water crises around the country -- namely, accountability.
Meanwhile, there's good news for people who hate payday lenders. We have a report on how officials in Mississippi are poised to lower a regulatory boom on these predators, thanks to a little boost from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Finally, we'll have a full recap of the New Hampshire primaries, and what blowout wins for Sanders and Donald Trump portend for the road ahead.
"So, That Happened" is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week are Huffington Post reporters Paige Lavender, Lauren Weber and Christina Wilkie
This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.
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