The Democrats' Debate About The Future Has Become A Battle Of Bona Fides

It's gotten personal.

So, that happened. Hillary Clinton's candidacy has a very compelling mission: She'll hold fast against the GOP's attempts to roll back the accomplishments of the Obama administration. Bernie Sanders presents himself equally compellingly: Holding what's been gained isn't good enough; real progress requires a revolution. For a time, this was a heady debate about the future of a party. But as we entered this week, it's taken a personal turn and is now, essentially, a pissing contest over who's more progressive.

 At this week's debate, Clinton and Sanders were drawn into this argument from the outset.

"Senator Sanders and I share some very big progressive goals," Clinton said. "I've been fighting for universal health care for many years. We're now on the path to achieving it. I don't want us to start over again."

She went on to stake out goals on a range of issues, all of which fell short of the mark Sanders is personally seeking. The difference, Clinton said, is that Sanders' "numbers just don't add up."

Sanders struck a civil chord, but objected to the idea that he would "start over again." "I'm on the health, education, labor committee [which] wrote the Affordable Care Act. The idea I would dismantle health care in America while we're waiting to pass a Medicare for all is just not accurate."

The argument continued, however. Clinton made note of the fact that many Democrats would not be deemed sufficiently progressive under Sanders' definition, from President Barack Obama to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. 

Sanders insisted that this whole conflict began when Clinton, earlier in the campaign, self-proclaimed herself as a moderate.

"I said I'm a progressive that likes to get things done," Clinton responded, "Cherry-picking quotes doesn't get things done."

There is, of course, one thing that's revealed a fundamental difference between the two candidates and that drives both the thoughtful and the petty aspects of their rivalry. That thing? Wall Street, and its specter of influence that Sanders has, not so subtly, suggested governs Clinton's decision-making. Clinton has, in past debates, done herself no favors with her bizarre ripostes to Sanders' accusations -- the most famous of which is the claim that her relationship with powerful financial institutions is a mere byproduct of their geographic proximity to the Sept. 11 attacks.

On the debate stage, that divide once again featured prominently, with Sanders framing Hillary as part of an implicitly corrupt "establishment." "What being part of the establishment is," Sanders averred, "is in the last quarter having a super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street."

Clinton responded that this was an "insinuation" -- "If you've got something to say, say it directly. You will not find that i ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received... I think it's time to end the artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks and let's talk about the issues that divide us."

And that was just the first half-hour of this debate.

There's no doubt that Sanders presents a unique problem for Clinton. She sees the near future as one in which she -- a proven warrior against Republican slings and arrows -- serves as a lonely bulwark against the dismantling of progressive accomplishment. But Sanders is selling glittering visions of a progressive revolution. It's up to Clinton to sell her mission as the more realistic, and to point out that Sanders is going to get his teeth kicked in by an angry and entrenched GOP and that he's had it pretty easy being an independent winning elections in safe Vermont.

For a while, it looked like we'd have a debate over these competing visions. That it's skidded into this contretemps over who has the purest progressive bona fides is bad news for both candidates. For Clinton, it's simply a war she can't win and should avoid fighting in the first place, lest she become more reactive than strategic. And for Sanders, the pettiness cuts against the respectful tone of competitiveness he laid out from the outset, and it's starting to make him look less like a principled revolutionary and more like a conventional politician. It's a street fight tailor-made to sow resentment and depress turnout, and you have to imagine that the GOP candidates do not mind it one bit.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are now battling over who is more progressive.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are now battling over who is more progressive.

Also on this week's podcast, Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who made a surprisingly strong showing in her upset bid to unseat New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has set her sights on New York's 19th Congressional District. She's aiming to apply her work in fighting corruption to one of Washington's most broken institutions, and she joins us today to tell us how she'll get there.

This week, reform-minded Wisconsin Republican Rep. Reid Ribble announced that he'll be retiring from the House at the end of the year. We'll chat him up about the 2016 scene, his plans for his last year in office and what he hopes life after government is like.

And Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy (D) joins us in-studio to talk about reforming the U.S. relationship with the brutal and warlike regime in Saudi Arabia.

Finally, the presidential race has finished its sojourn in Iowa, and the movable feast moves on to New Hampshire. We'll discuss everything we learned about voters and the numbers, and how it could affect what happens next.

"So, That Happened" is hosted by Jason Linkins, Zach Carter and Arthur Delaney. Joining them this week are New York congressional candidate Zephyr Teachout, Wisconsin Rep. Reid Ribble and Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. Also on the show are Huffington Post reporters Jessica Schulberg, Janie Velencia and Lauren Weber.

This podcast was produced, edited and engineered by Christine Conetta.

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