It wasn’t much of a debate. This might have been because of the scheduling. Everybody ought to have something better to do on Saturday night than argue over the correct level of the minimum wage. Also, the atrocity in Paris hung over the proceedings, making the words of the candidates seem even more calculated and inauthentic than usual. The exquisite efforts they all took to avoid using the phrase “radical Islam” pretty much set the tone for the evening.
Bernie Sanders got off one of the night’s best lines when, regarding Ms. Clinton’s claim that when she takes millions from Wall Street, she isn’t being bought.
"Why, over her political career,” Sanders asked, “has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton? Maybe they're dumb and they don't know what they're gonna get, but I don't think so.”
But Sanders, overall, had a bad night. He doesn’t “do” debate. He favors the harangue. When he is interrupted during one of his stream of consciousness rants about, say, free college for everyone, he loses his momentum. With no shouts of “amen” from the chorus, the feeling of righteousness fails and he is left with just the anger. While it is true that anger is part of any good politician’s arsenal, it is not enough.
Sanders was so eager to get aboard the anger express that he dismissed the opportunity to fake something empathetic and resolute about the slaughter in Paris. This is how each candidate was to open the evening and Bernie blew it off with a couple of trite, canned lines so that he could get to what he lives to talk about. That would be the appalling economic injustice of American life, the insufficient minimum wage, the hideous expense of higher education, the bottomless greed of Wall Street, and so on.
If Sanders debated badly, this was not as conspicuous as it might otherwise have been because the other two candidates were not very much better. Mrs. Clinton was poised but proved once again that she has a tin ear. She has this facility for saying things – like “dead broke” – that leave the listener feeling that intelligence has not merely been insulted but assaulted.
Last night she came up with a formulation that made those big Wall Street campaign contributions into little gifts, given in gratitude for all she had done to help get lower Manhattan back on its feet and the 9/11 attacks.
“So I— I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy, and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.”
This provoked dismayed tweets from viewers watching at home. One of the tweeters wrote that he had “never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations.”
When this was read to her, Mrs. Clinton replied, “I’m sorry that whoever tweeted that had that impression, because I worked closely with New Yorkers after 9/11 for my entire first term to rebuild. So, yes, I did know people ... I’ve had a lot of folks give me donations from all kinds of backgrounds say, ‘I don’t agree with you on everything, but I like what you do. I like how you stand up. I’m going to support you.’ And I think that is absolutely appropriate.”
A strange moment but, then, maybe not so strange, given the mood of the debate. During almost the entire affair, someone coming in cold, after a several months cut off from all sources of news, would have never guessed that these three candidates belonged to the same party as the incumbent president. There was no message of continuing the good works or even of the risks of changing horses in mid-stream. It was all “times are bad and they call for new leadership.” When Sanders was off on one of his rants, it sounded almost as though he believed one of the Kochs was in the White House.
Mrs. Clinton buried the dagger early in the evening, during the discussions over how to respond to the Paris attacks in particular and ISIS in general. The President had a few hours earlier said in an interview that ISIS had been “contained.” Then came the Paris attacks.
So very early in the debate, Mrs. Clinton said, of ISIS that it “cannot be contained, it must be defeated.”
They had to love that back at the White House.
But the real clunker moment of the evening probably belonged to Senator Sanders who, when asked about his proudest accomplishment, patted himself on the back for his fine work with the Veterans Administration.