The MSNBC Debate: Things Said, Things Not Said

MSNBC Debate

Image courtesy of MSNBC

The MSNBC Debate: Things Said, Things Not Said

| published November 8, 2015 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor


During last week’s Democratic forum on MSNBC, moderator Rachel Maddow asked a somewhat whimsical question of candidate Hillary Clinton. Was she, the former Secretary of State, an introvert or an extrovert?

Most people could answer this question more-or-less directly, without hesitation. A few may require clarification as to what the terms really mean.

But Clinton, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President told Maddow she would describe herself as an “extro-introvert.” Clinton explains that she loves people, thrives on the interactions of them and the bustle of politics, draws strength from helping others. But she also likes her down-time: privacy, a private zone of space, reading, and sleep.

In other words, Clinton embraces both descriptions of her personality.

Maddow’s question came from a sealed envelope chosen by Clinton. All three major Democratic candidates were required to choose one of the little white envelopes, inside of which were several questions of whimsy and levity. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley was asked if as President he would choose between manned space missions to Mars or coast-to-coast high speed electric rail. (O’Malley “rejected” the notion that one project necessarily excluded the other, and said both should be achieved.) He was also asked to name his most unusual item of clothing, which in his case is a kilt given to him as a gift.  Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was asked to name his “dream job” he could have right now if he could not be a politician. Sanders answered “president of CNN.” In that role, he explained, he could use his power to shift the conversation in America back to the real issues.

Clinton’s mildly evasive non-answer to the “introvert or extrovert” choice was typical of how she approached the more serious of Maddow’s questions, some of which were meant to illustrate concerns that Clinton’s believability and credibility will certainly come into play in the general election, now less than one year away. First, there was the wordplay, an old Clinton tactic now so familiar we often overlook its obvious appearances. Like her husband Bill Clinton, grilled during grand jury testimony and depositions in decades past, using lawerly tacks to obscure facts and cloud reality: asking prosecutors to define “the” and “it.”

Maddow asked Hillary Clinton how she could square the circle—telling voters she intends to fight for their causes to overcome economic pain and hardship and injustice despite having built a career around speaking engagements and now infamous appearances in front of the top brass of companies like Goldman Sachs and Qualcomm. Before becoming a candidate this year, Clinton’s speaking fees—which range from $200,000 to $225,000 per appearance—are among the priciest anywhere. Coupled will Bill’s speaking and consulting fees, the Clintons earned more than $25 million. Hillary’s appearances over the several years prior to her 2008 candidacy and after her departure from the State Department in 2013 included wingdings with Wall Street firms, lobbying groups, communications giants, and the Silicon Valley billionaires clubs.

Clinton’s responses are telling: to paraphrase, she used those venues and those appearances to promote the progressive causes in which she most believes, as a tool to network among the powerful in order to carry her messages on empowerment and change, and as a way to influence the power set to adopt policies which will help middle-income and lower-income Americans. Clinton avoided any direct answer to the conditions surrounding the wealth she and husband Bill have achieved by being a part of a political and financial system seemingly at odds with her message.

In this sense, even though Sanders takes very few direct shots at Clinton, his position could not be more starkly at odds with that of Clinton. And Sanders makes sure voters understand the choices being offered voters. The first is a professional-class politician who asks that liberals and progressives overlook, or ignore, what is behind the curtain—a multimillionaire component of a duo with deep connections in the board rooms of Wall Street and Silicon Valley and a hefty income from a complex tapestry of consulting, international business deals, trade negotiations, appearances and speeches.

So it went in the exchanges between Maddow and Clinton. There was a similar dance of non-specifics when it came to foreign policy and military might, an issue on which Clinton is sometimes seen as more hawkish that not only her Democratic opponents, but also the President whom she served as Secretary of State. There were questions of her recent shifts on critical issues: same sex marriage, gun control, the latitude of police in racially charged environments, recent Pacific Trade agreements, and the Keystone Pipeline. These sometimes major policy shifts were not “flip-flops,” but personal migrations on issues in which the facts present clearer evidence.

Her answers to Maddow were all similar to a single high-ordnance question presented by Anderson Cooper during a CNN debate the previous month: how do you explain all the reversals and flip-flops?

“Will you say anything to win?” Cooper wanted to know. Clinton’s answer—reasonable enough for many politicians—was that new information and new facts had helped her more fully understand the issues in which the “flip-flops” occurred. In the MSNBC debate, Maddow confronted Clinton on these reversals one at a time, drip drip drip, whereas Cooper had dropped a nuke by lumping everything into one bomb.

During the MSNBC debate, Clinton kept her newly minted but steely cool throughout—though it can hardly be argued that Maddow was a hostile interrogator. Clinton never lost her composure, and as in the first debate, did no damage to herself in any significant way. It is important to note, however, that post-debate analysts Chris Matthews and others, including Maddow, immediately jumped onto the thread of what Clinton has not said, and how she had not answered—as opposed to her actual answers.

Par for the course, perhaps, in an age in which the winning debate performances are often the most carefully scripted—though in O’Malley’s case the effect did not work.

The debate was not a debate per se, but a sort of anti-debate: a generally soft forum in which each candidate was given about 35 minutes of one-on-one question and answer time with Maddow. Though Maddow did occasionally ask drill-down questions, many political observers saw the debate as a friendly venue: an unabashedly progressive talk show host lobbing fat pitches across the plate. The “tough” questions provoked anti-climactic responses and sometimes highly programmed answers. It was the questions meant to introduce levity that got the most laughs from the room, and occasionally sparked the most interesting revelations.

Clinton’s reticence to decide between intro and extrovert was illuminating for how, even when faced with a non-threatening question, she felt the safest maneuver was to have it both ways. Why hit the issue hard and with honesty, and risk offending the 50% of the world who are either intros or extros. One friend emailed me later to say “if Maddow had asked it this way, ‘belly button—innie or outsie—Clinton would have answered it both ways, at least until she calculated the political risks of choosing.”

Still, like the CNN debate, Clinton performed well and won easily on points. Sanders, like the CNN debate, proved to be the crowd favorite with some of his most familiar talking points. Sanders scored with the best humor (as in when he indicated with a deadpan face and a dry voice that some voters think of him “as frumpy,” a funny and self-effacing line which may have drawn the loudest laughs of the night). Sanders also reminded voters that he is a grandfather of a gaggle of girls—the human side of a man whose age may become an issue if he wins the nomination and faces a much younger Republican. How would a contest be framed if it were to pit a "youthful" Marco Rubio against an opponent is in his 70s?

O’Malley seemed especially scripted, with rapid-fire screenplay answers and stagey facial expressions which made him seem more like an actor performing the role of a man running for President, than an actual former governor and lifelong Democratic and liberal activist. That O’Malley scored big hits with the audience, even occasionally pegging the applause meter with his earnest and idealistic responses, seemed lost on the fact that he seemed uncomfortably and self-consciously squeezed like so much packaged toothpaste into a caricature of reformer-progressives like Robert Kennedy, John V. Lindsey, and Gary Hart. In fact, some who watched the “debate” said that O’Malley, for all his eagerness and energy, seemed like a time-traveler—Marty McFly as George McGovern, propelled from 1975 to 2015, now stuck in the 21st Century.

Sanders, ironically, talked most like a man living in the here and now, despite the curmudgeonly visage of a guy who still talks the same quasi-socialist shtick once heard on street corners and campuses in the 1960s. Sanders, too, is a time-traveler, but one who sees in the realities and risks of the new century in the hands of big corporations and billionaires who, he believes, are seeking even now seeking to co-opt and control the U.S. political system.

Conspicuously not present in the room was Harvard professor and author Lawrence Lessig, who suspended his nascent campaign for President earlier in the month when the Democratic National Committee chose to tweak—or perhaps reinterpret—rules governing how candidates qualify under what polling circumstances to appear in the debates. Lessig says the DNC changed the rules—in effect moving the goalpost just as he was a few yards away from a score. Lessig has been polling at about 1% for more than three weeks, but his goal of appearing in the MSNBC debate was shattered when the DNC opted to interpret the duration of his 1% polling as insufficient to make the cut.

Some Lessig supporters say that the DNC and chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz simply did not want Lessig in the room at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, a complaint similar to those from the campaigns of other potential Democratic contenders, including O’Malley earlier this year. Still other Democrats have registered a concern that the DNC is, in effect, running a sort of Mega Super PAC on behalf of Clinton; it only tolerates Sanders because it cannot shrug off his enormous crowds nor his substantial poll numbers.

Questions will now loom for O’Malley. The race has obviously morphed into a two person battle between Clinton, the de facto front-runner, and Sanders, the consummate insurgent. O’Malley says he will stay in the fight for the duration, but eventually cash will become an issue which even the most enthusiastic of progressives must contend with. Most Democratic analysts assume that in a race without O’Malley, his support might break roughly 2-to-1 toward Sanders, but in an election year filled with surprises, anything could happen.

Related Thursday Review articles:

2016 Presidential Match-Up: Carson Tied With Clinton; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 4,2015.

Huckabee, Christie Get Bumped From Fox News Debate; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 6, 2015.