Last night Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debated in New Hampshire, and pundits then debated the debate…. (More)

“You can’t be a moderate and be a progressive”

One of their most pointed exchanges came as Sanders tried to seize the ‘progressive’ banner as his exclusive domain:

Thursday night’s Democratic debate started out with an electrifying – and rare for Democrats – series of frank, back-and-forth blows over ideological questions. Bernie Sanders said the big problem with Hillary Clinton is that she is, in her own words, a moderate.

“Nothing is wrong with being a moderate,” Sanders said, but “you can’t be a moderate and be a progressive.”

Clinton shot back with a double-barreled assault, arguing that on the one hand Sanders’ definition of real progressive values would rule Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Paul Wellstone out of the progressive circle. On the other hand she charged that Sanders himself couldn’t meet the test of full ideological rigor.

“I don’t think it was progressive to vote against the Brady Bill,” she said, “I don’t think it was progressive to vote against Senator Kennedy’s immigration reform.”

For what it’s worth, I agree with Clinton. “Progressive” and “democratic socialist” are not synonyms, however much Sanders may wish otherwise. And as Clinton replied,
“progressive” is about progress, not ideological purity … however much Sanders may wish otherwise.

“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly”

The most heated moment came as Clinton met Sanders’ attacks on her speaking fees and campaign contributions from Wall Street:

Mrs. Clinton, lobbing her harshest assault yet in their race for the Democratic presidential nomination, said months of criticism by Mr. Sanders over her taking speaking fees from Wall Street banks amounted to a suggestion that she was corrupt – or, as she put it, a “very artful smear.” It was the sort of cutting remark she usually reserves for Republicans, and it drew boos from many in the audience at the University of New Hampshire.

“There is this attack that he is putting out, which really comes down to, anybody who took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought,” she said. “And I just absolutely reject that, senator. And I really don’t think these attacks by insinuation and innuendo are worthy of you. Enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.”

Of course Sanders never actually says that Clinton is a bought-and-paid-for Wall Street shill. But his supporters do, and he seems happy to let that accusation float around.

The Hedgehog and the Fox

The Atlantic’s David Graham framed the debate with a Greek metaphor:

With the New Hampshire primaries just days away, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders met on a debate stage in Durham on Thursday. In their first one-on-one matchup, the duo seemed determined to illustrate Archilochus’s classic binary between the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one important thing. Sanders knows that what the country needs—the only thing it needs—is a political and economic revolution. Clinton knows the country needs progressive policies on a range of matters and a pragmatic, realistic strategy to implement them.

That divide was clear from their opening statements, with Sanders immediately jumping to his familiar mantra about a rigged economy and a corrupt campaign-finance scheme. Clinton’s answer was not so laser focused, discussing a general need for the nation to “live up to our values in the 21st century,” and checking off not just the economy, but racism, sexism, and more. This split is not new, of course, but with Martin O’Malley off the stage and out of the race, and the Democratic contest tighter than ever, the division has never been so clear. It led to an unusually interesting debate, with the two candidates frequently addressing each other directly and delving into detail.

That’s actually a good frame for Clinton, as political science professor Philip Tetlock’s research shows that, when it comes to the complex issues faced by U.S. Presidents, multi-capable foxes have better political judgment than single-focus hedgehogs. Hedgehogs drive more headlines and inspire more confidence, Tetlock found, but they also get too invested in their One Big Thing and have more difficulty when that doesn’t apply or doesn’t work.

Outsider vs. Insider

Ezra Klein offered another frame for last night’s debate:

Bernie Sanders has all the upsides and all the downsides of a political outsider. Hillary Clinton has all the upsides and all the downsides of a political insider.

That was the main takeaway from MSNBC’s Democratic debate on Thursday, which was the best debate, on either side of the aisle, aired during this presidential cycle. With Martin O’Malley out of the race, it was down to Sanders and Clinton. Both candidates turned in their finest, most contrasting performances of any debate yet – and they offered voters a very clear choice on their different visions of how politics works.

Clinton said she “I’m not making promises that I cannot keep,” contrasting herself with Sanders’ sweeping, ideology-driven rhetoric. Klein correctly describes Clinton as a deal-making Washington insider, but continues:

Sanders’s problem, meanwhile, is that his purity has been preserved at the cost of his effectiveness. Though Sanders has served in Congress for over 20 years, he’s only been the lead sponsor of three bills that have been signed into law. His carefully maintained distance from the Democratic Party – evident both in his refusal to call himself a Democrat and in his colleagues’ refusal to endorse him – shows the difficulties he would have working with members of his own party, to say nothing of the climb it will be for an avowed socialist to find Republican support in Congress.

“They let the candidates actually debate…”

The Moderate Voice offers a round-up of pundits’ reactions, including praise for moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow:

[Winners] Chuck Todd/Rachel Maddow: Moderating a debate for state Senate is hard. Moderating a presidential debate is really tough. Chuck and Rachel did the thing that is both hardest and best for moderators at this level: They let the candidates actually debate….

And Dylan Matthews called both Clinton and Sanders as winners, while his losers includes DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Wall Street, and antiwar activists:

If Wall Street was left without allies in the Democratic field tonight, then so were genuine doves. Lincoln Chafee, the only Democratic candidate to make a straightforwardly antiwar case, was treated as a punchline and dropped out early. And with two candidates left, doves are completely without a champion.

I doubt last night’s debate changed many minds … but it did clarify the issues. And that’s good for voters.

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Photo Credit: AP

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Good day and good nuts