The Democratic Forum: Who Among You is the Most Progressive & Wise?

Bernie Sanders during the MSNBC Forum

Rachel Maddow with Bernie Sanders at Winthrop College/image courtesy of MSNBC

The Democratic Forum: Who Among You is the Most Progressive & Wise?
| published November 10, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor


Watching Martin O’Malley face-to-face with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow in last week’s Democratic Forum, one had an eerie sense of déjà vu. The encounter was like something from a movie you had seen long ago. And not something one would have seen in a theater while gobbling popcorn, but rather one of those cinema verite documentaries from the 1960s or 1970s (yes, I was the sort of nerd who watched those films)—except that this was in high definition, in glittering digital color, and interrupted periodically by commercials for Microsoft and T-Mobile.

O’Malley seems like a combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford at their box office primes—handsome to a fault, chiseled and square-jawed, widely expressionist with his face in a manner verging on scenery-chewing. Sometimes it was like watching Jim Carrey doing Robert Kennedy. Which brings us to the eyes: O’Malley has eyes which harken back to what we most recognize in the Kennedy clan and its attractive, beaming, idealistic faces.

Politically, O’Malley can rightfully claim to be a logical descendant of the Kennedy movement, if it can be called such. The former Maryland Governor’s political DNA can be traced in a straight, almost unbroken line through the movements of the Democratic Party’s great reformers and progressives—from Robert Kennedy to George McGovern, from Birch Bayh to Jerry Brown, from Gary Hart to Howard Dean, and, some would argue, more logically to Barack Obama than to O’Malley’s formidable competitors, front-runner Hillary Clinton and insurgent Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Senator.

In O’Malley’s defense, he seemed more at ease in the informal setting of the non-debate debate last week than in the previous Democratic debate. In fact, some observers and journalists suggest that his performance—spirited, animated, seemingly comfortable with himself, and easily engaged with the audience--worked to his distinct advantage. Some have suggested that it was his one-on-one conversation with Maddow that gave him the ideal opportunity to shine—without a sense that he is overpowered in this contest by the outsized visages of Clinton and Sanders.

O’Malley may be in last place among the three top-tier Democrats still standing (both James Webb of Virginia and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island suspended their campaigns last month), but he makes it clear that he considers his political genealogy to be purer than that of his two opponents. During the “debate,” which was less a debate than a series of one-on-one interviews, O’Malley took digs at Clinton and Sanders, reminding those watching that of the three, he alone has been a lifelong and committed Democrat—not a Republican like Hillary Rodham Clinton of her youth (she campaigned for Barry Goldwater, joined the Young Republicans, attended the GOP’s 1968 convention) nor a Socialist and one-time independent like Sanders (in the 1960s Sanders was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, in the 1970s ran for local and state office in Vermont as a member of the left-leaning Liberty Union Party, and later ran as a member of several progressive or leftist third parties).

Though he took pains to remain polite and civil, O’Malley clearly fired several torpedoes at Clinton, in essence calling her out on her numerous recent reversals on key issues. Those flip-flops, O’Malley says, are little more than a naked attempt by Clinton to shore up her progressive flank—the only place of weakness which still threatens her de facto position as front-runner.

O’Malley suggests that Clinton engaged in those now notable reversals—widely disseminated in the media—only after watching her poll numbers dip into the danger zone during the summer and early fall, with Sanders overtaking her in both Iowa and New Hampshire, and several Republican candidates pulling alongside her in national polls. Sanders, especially, seemed at the time to pose a very real danger. At one point during the late summer, as the steady barrage of bad news about her email and server problems seemed unstoppable, it was beginning to look like a replay of 2008, when Barack Obama came from behind to batter Clinton in several early states, triggering division within the party and an endless primary and caucus season which remained unresolved until late June.

But Clinton is back on top, almost comfortably so. The email and server issues have begun, finally, to fade. Pending the outcome of several FBI probes into the email fiasco, she may be able to soon bid farewell to that most nagging of intruders on her political landscape—that private-crafted email account and the homebrew server. Her much-anticipated appearance before the latest round of Benghazi hearings produced little excitement, and those hearings may be best remembered for labored arguments between the Republican and Democratic members of the panel—not for anything which Clinton said or did not say. Some GOP members of the committee still maintain that Clinton is being less-than-forthright in her responses, but the media yawned by the time it was over, indicating that the story may be falling flat with the public. Clinton’s performance during the first Democratic debate on CNN last month burnished what was turning out to be a good several weeks for a campaign dogged with problems all year.  The CNN debate may have also effectively derailed any further talk of a Joe Biden candidacy.

Likewise, her performance during the informal “interview” segments in the Winthrop College auditorium was solid and error-free, though the same can be said of both Sanders and O’Malley. But even MSNBC’s generally liberal-leaning panel of pundits after the forum said that Clinton had frequently deployed evasive answers and often refused to take head-on some questions—not uncommon by candidates of either party in any debate, but in Clinton’s case a sign of trouble, perhaps, that her recent flip-flops on several key issues may still turn out to be thorny for her campaign’s credibility.

Meanwhile, despite Clinton’s recovery in some polls, Sanders remains not only alive but active. The Vermont Senator shows no signs of stopping for anything, anywhere. Sanders gave what was arguably the most engaging performance of the evening. His answers often elicited a roar of approval from those in the room, and he has clearly put his heart and soul into pushing some the highest priority progressive issues to the forefront—a fact which many of the pundits say is the central reason for Clinton’s now famous reversals.

Sanders, without ever attacking Clinton directly, had earlier in the forum clearly contrasted his work and his cause with those of the Hillary Clinton once known for her high dollar speaking engagements, her frequent mingling with the Wall Street movers and shakers, her close connections to the bigwigs of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, and the Clinton Foundation’s tightly interwoven business dealings with foreign governments and international businesses. Clinton has defended these web-like networks as essential not only politically, but also as a tool to graft her message onto powerful the narrative of the millionaires and the billionaires. But Sanders has used this Clinton vulnerability to imply that Clinton is, and shall remain, soft on campaign finance reform.

“I don’t think it’s good enough to talk the talk on campaign finance reform,” Sanders said, “you’ve got to walk the walk.”

When the same subject came up later with Clinton, the exchange was a rare occasion when Maddow drilled down and did not easily give Clinton a pass. Clinton agreed that it was a problem of perception, but that as President she would work to end the revolving door which now exists between Congress, White House appointments, lobbying firms, and Wall Street.

Some journalists (and plenty of Republicans) who watched the debate were uncomfortable with the generally friendly line of questioning from Maddow. Many of Maddow’s inquiries, especially those directed toward Clinton, were easy, pop fly pitches. Example: when presented with the question of how to bring more than a dozen southern states back into Democratic Party influence, Clinton basically said that her credentials as a former Arkansan gave her leverage among the reliably red states. Unsolicited, Clinton also injected health care and issues of longevity into the discussion about The South, citing a study which Clinton said showed a higher-than-average death by early middle age to millions of uneducated whites living in a dozen states.

Clinton said those “white, middle-aged Americans without a high school education…a disproportionate number of them across the South…are dying earlier than their parents and grandparents.”

In fact, the mortality study Clinton cited makes no such claim and offers none of the direct evidence which Clinton seemed to use to leverage her point of an uneducated South now controlled by anti-health-care Republicans. The study was conducted by economists at Princeton University, one of whom said—after being contacted by a variety of reporters looking into Clinton’s broad claim—that their study said nothing about deaths among those without a high school diploma, and made no direct comparisons to previous generations, in the South or in any other region. The study did conclude that among non-Hispanic whites aged 45 to 54 (barely middle age by today’s standards), some figures show the death rate had increased by 34 deaths per 100,000 among those with at least a high school diploma. The authors of the study were merely pointing out what would appear to be an aberrant trend in one narrow age bandwidth in a century-long era of longer life spans for Americans.

Clinton seemed to draw a direct line between a largely Republican South, low education achievement, and early deaths. Maddow did not challenge this absurd correlation, and made no attempt to require Clinton to amplify or clarify what she had just declared to a huge TV audience. One was left to assume that the study Clinton cited was Clinton’s answer to why Democrats fail to gain traction in many places in the South.

On the whole, however, Clinton used the forum very much to her advantage. Notably, she did not take the bait form her Democratic rivals even when it would have intuitively served her purposes to do so. Clinton was clearly using the candidate-friendly forum to continue her direct appeal to voters—bypassing O’Malley and Sanders, and bypassing the media—in an effort to create enough momentum to blunt any further advances by Sanders.

Clinton was tactically careful, shaping her responses to sound somewhat more conservative on some issues—such as crime and the death penalty—while also seeking to position herself solidly on the progressive side of those issues which offer Sanders his most compelling appeal. Clinton said she would regret if the Supreme Court struck down the legality of the death penalty, suggesting that it may still be the right tool for the very worst of crimes—mass murder, domestic terrorism—and citing the Boston Marathon bombings and the mass murders committed by Timothy McVeigh as clear examples.

Clinton also clearly suggested that her foreign policy differences with President Obama would make her a more hawkish commander-in-chief. Citing the Middle East, Clinton said that the use of force should never be taken off the table.

On the whole, Clinton used the Rock Hill debate to maintain control of the Democratic narrative, a process which earlier in the year her campaign was in grave danger of losing altogether. She largely ignored her two remaining rivals, while burnishing her perception as the clear and evident front-runner.

For the Clinton campaign, the best strategy may be to do no harm between now and Iowa. In theory, at least, and barring no surprises and no surges from Sanders, Clinton and her team can ride out the clock. In her worst case scenario, she loses Iowa and New Hampshire, but regains her footing in South Carolina, Nevada, and Florida with smashing wins. This would effectively crush O’Malley, and marginalize Sanders enough that even if he decides to fight to the convention, his impact on the outcome will be minimal.

Sanders, conversely, cannot afford to merely run out the clock, even if he goes into Iowa and New Hampshire leading in the polls. If Sanders has reached his plateau, as some political analysts have suggested, he may face a long series of brutal losses beginning with South Carolina, a state whose Democrats are not likely to support his cause. Palmetto State African-Americans will generally rally behind Clinton as the safest bet among the three Democrats. Sanders chances in Florida are diminishing with each passing week as Clinton regains her footing.

Sanders must quickly make his message palatable for Democrats in places like Florida and Nevada, and a wide swath of states on Super Tuesday, which is March 1, 2016. Otherwise, his Super Tuesday could turn out to be Dismal Tuesday—when voters in a dozen states, including big ticket places like Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and Georgia go to the polls. This will be solid Clinton Country. And we’re not even talking about the other states that day: Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma, places where Sanders’ advisors will tell him fuggitaboutit. His only hope that day will come from Minnesota, Massachusetts, and his home state of Vermont.

As for Martin O’Malley, despite the Kennedy-esque face and the beaming John Lindsay smile, the former Maryland Governor with the deep Democratic credentials must stake his claim early. Even second place here and there won’t help. In 2008, John Edwards took a strong second place in Iowa, behind Obama, and nudging out Hillary Clinton who settled for the booby prize of third place; it did Edwards little good, since the media had long before shifted the Democratic narrative into a two-person race. In that sense, O’Malley has no Alamo, no particular plot of ground where he can make his last stand. O’Malley must begin to make traction quickly, well before the next Democratic debate. Otherwise his campaign cash will begin to run dry, effectively ending the campaign what had been, arguably, the most idealistic of the crusades among the 2016 Democrats.

Related Thursday Review articles:

The MSNBC Debate: Things Said, Things Not Said; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; November 8, 2015.

Biden Says No to 2016 Candidacy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; October 21, 2015.