At last night’s Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders showed America what a revolution looks like. He remained on point, hitting Clinton hard on issues where she has lagged behind progressives—like fracking and raising the Social Security tax cap—and for most of the discussion, he controlled the conversation. It is also becoming abundantly clear that he has changed the narrative. His positions are so popular that Clinton is well on her way to adopting them all — from talking about breaking up the big banks to downplaying her support of $12 an hour minimum wage in favor of hopping on the Fight For 15 bandwagon.
On the other hand, the night was less kind to Hillary Clinton. Though there were moments where she shined — the section on gun control, and her bringing up women’s health stand out, in particular — these were few and far between. More than once, the former Secretary of State was booed by the New York crowd, while on her strongest issues like foreign policy, Clinton seemed out of her depth. Her night was marked by her inability to control the dialogue. Additionally, her responses to the questions she normally struggles with — like her Wall Street ties — were decimating.
Three times the moderators asked Hillary Clinton about the releasing the transcripts for her paid Wall Street speeches for which she made millions of dollars. Three times, the former Secretary dodged answering directly.
Throughout this primary, Clinton’s biggest problem has been trust. According to Gallup, the word most associated with her is “dishonest.” By not releasing the transcripts to the speeches she gave to Wall Street banks, Clinton only feeds this perception — which will hurt her in November if she is the nominee.
The former Secretary’s answer — that such a demand for transparency is “a new requirement” — is not just revealing of where she stands on the issue of money in politics, but also of a disconnect, or inability to grasp the current political climate.
The transactional politics of the last thirty years have fallen out of favor due to the Internet, and speed at which information is shared. Whereas before, candidates could say different things to different people without concern that anyone would find out, nowadays everything is filmed, and subject to scrutiny online.
Hiding behind tradition is not going to save Hillary Clinton from backlash — not now, and not in November. By withholding the transcripts, she is admitting guilt in the court of public opinion. And at the debate, she admitted it three times.
While Wall Street is a weakness for Clinton, Foreign policy is typically her area to shine. But, last night, the discussion got away from her. Two segments that stand out were when the conversation turned to the Libyan intervention, and the bloodshed that followed, and of course, the Israel-Palestine conflict.
To the first point, Clinton found herself desperately looking for a way to explain away the bloody aftermath of the US intervention in which Muammar Gaddafi was deposed. At the time, Clinton had proudly remarked “We came, we saw, he died.” However, today, Libya is less stable than ever; violence and terrorism abound.
In an effort to move past this line of questions, Clinton did something especially damaging to her credibility: she blamed Obama. This is what she said:
“The decision was the president’s. Did I do the due diligence? Did I talk to everybody I could talk to? Did I visit every capital and then report back to the president? Yes, I did. That’s what a secretary of state does….but at the end of the day, those are the decisions that are made by the president to in any way use American military power. And the president made that decision. And, yes, we did try without success because of the Libyans’ obstruction to our efforts, but we did try and we will continue to try to help the Libyan people.”
Throughout the primary, Clinton has been wrapping herself in the President’s legacy. In fact, before the Libya section of the debate, she had invoked him in response to questions about her commitment to reform in light of her reliance on funds from “big money interests”:
“Well, make — make no mistake about it, this is not just an attack on me, it’s an attack on President Obama. President Obama…You know, let me tell you why. You may not like the answer, but I’ll tell you why. President Obama had a super PAC when he ran. President Obama took tens of millions of dollars from contributors. And President Obama was not at all influenced when he made the decision to pass and sign Dodd-Frank, the toughest regulations…”
By blaming Obama for Libya, Clinton only confirmed what many have thought about her all along: that her positions are based on expediency rather than genuine commitment. Clinton praised the president until she needed a scapegoat. Then she threw him under the bus.
As if the Libya section wasn’t bad enough, the Israel-Palestine section was worse. Bernie Sanders criticized the United States’ role in the conflict — as well as former Secretary Clinton — for being too uneven in favor of Israel.
Clinton pushed back, stating:
”[A]s secretary of state for President Obama, I’m the person who held the last three meetings between the president of the Palestinian Authority and the prime minister of Israel.
There were only four of us in the room, Netanyahu, Abbas, George Mitchell, and me. Three long meetings. And I was absolutely focused on what was fair and right for the Palestinians.”
And that’s when things got ugly for the former Secretary.
Sanders followed up by calling for his opponent to acknowledge that Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister, “is not right all of the time.” But this appeared to be a too tall an order for Clinton who would only go so far as to say, “I have spoken about and written at some length the very candid conversations I’ve had with him and other Israeli leaders. Nobody is saying that any individual leader is always right, but it is a difficult position.” This remark lined up a perfect shot for Sanders who promptly reminded the crowd that the former Secretary had given a cringeworthy speech to AIPAC.
Clinton’s inability to keep the foreign policy conversation — where she has the strongest appeal — focused and away from her ties to special interests — her biggest vulnerability — was demonstrative of a shift in this primary race. At this point, the race is close, and the only way for Clinton to win enough delegates to secure an uncontested nomination is by relying on name recognition, and closed primaries.