Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is the only candidate that could possibly challenge former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. His debate appearances provide him with mainstream media coverage that he is often deprived of and therefore his performances need to cause such a splash that the media cannot ignore him. I am not sure that this was the case as at various opportunities to wow the audience, he fell short. He didn’t perform badly, per se, but he needed to do much better in order to force the media to stop fawning over Hillary Clinton’s coronation.
The first thing that Sanders said was about how a campaign staffer had accessed the campaign information of the Clinton campaign but provided context that this was because of repeated mistakes by a company employed to store the data on behalf of the DNC. He announced that the staffer in question had been fired, that the Sanders campaign was conducting an internal investigation, and offered an apology to the Clinton campaign and his supporters for the breach, which seemed to play well to the crowd.
A large portion of the debate was focussed around foreign policy. On the issue of ISIS Sanders said that the US should not conduct unilateral action and that a coalition of Arab nations need to take the lead in fighting ISIS. He also praised King Abdullah of Jordan for “welcoming in thousands of refugees with open arms”. Senator Sanders went on to argue that the US cannot be seen as the policemen of the world and that the ground troops fighting ISIS must be Muslim troops.
Later in the evening Sanders brought up the fact that Clinton was supportive of regime change “far too much”, he reiterated that he had voted against the 2003 Iraq War, and that any strategy would have to focus on fighting ISIS rather than Assad. His final contribution on the topic of foreign affairs came very late in the debate in which Sanders argued that taking out dictators was easy but the consequence of such acts are “unforeseeable”, a response that prompted modest applause.
The debate subject swiftly moved on to guns, as the shooters in the San Bernadino terrorist attack had easy access to firearms. The Senator said that he supports improved background checks, getting rid of the gun show loophole, and banning the sale of military-grade weaponry. I laid out my analysis of Sanders’ record on guns in piece on Martin O’Malley’s debate performance as it was the former Maryland Governor who brought it up. Following this criticism he reiterated his decision to vote for instant background checks, to ban assault weapons, and to close the gun show loophole.
Sanders brought up racism immediately after this exchange in relation to Donald Trump and correctly pointed out that demagogues like Trump use scapegoating to distract people form economic injustice. Later on, when asked about race directly, Sanders said that of the 2.2 million people in jail most of these people are African-Americans or Hispanic and that tackling systemic racism is incredibly important.
Specifically, the Vermont Senator said that police shouldn’t be shooting unarmed people, that he would decriminalise marijuana, end the war on drugs, make policing more community oriented and representative of the community, and end minimal sentencing. After a fair amount of clapping from these suggestions, Bernie trotted out his guaranteed applause line: “we should invest in jobs and education not jails and incarceration”.
He later spoke more specifically on the heroin problem of New Hampshire at which he said that doctors are too easily proscribing opiates, that a needle exchange programme should be introduced, that addiction should be treated as a disease, and that mental health services should be improved.
On the economy Sanders said that “billionaires should pay their fair share of taxes”. In addition to this he said there should be paid equity for women and a $15 per hour minimum wage should be introduced. Furthermore Sanders reiterated his belief in introducing free tuition for public universities and college (paid for by a Wall Street speculation tax), and to invest $1 trillion in “rebuilding the US’ crumbling infrastructure”. These suggestions also prompted applause from the audience.
When asked whether Corporate America would “love a President Sanders”, the Vermont Senator said “No, Corporate America won’t love President Sanders. CEOs won’t like me and Wall Street will like me even less”. This response, much to the establishment’s annoyance, received a relatively large round of applause along with a few laughs. His policy response to the question was that Glass-Steagall should be brought back and the biggest financial institutions should be broken up.
He pointed out that he didn’t have a Super-PAC backing his campaign and that “I don’t want their money”. He received another round of applause when he said that the greed of Wall Street was “destroying the country”. Sanders finished these remarks by railing against the corrupt campaign finance system and that Wall Street had lobbied the Republican leadership to deregulate the financial industry.
When asked directly about these policies, his responses were a mixed bag. On college tuition Sanders said that a tax on Wall Street speculation would fund free tuition at public colleges and universities as well as giving people the ability to refinance existing student debt at lower rates.
In relation to Sanders response to healthcare questions, I thought his response was weak. He argued in favour for a single-payer Medicare for all system, but he was not nearly specific enough in terms of costings. Sanders correctly pointed out that it would save middle-class families money as they wouldn’t have to pay for private insurance, but he couldn’t give specifics on how much money they would save thus giving the appearance of not having thought the policy through. Clinton also brought up a Wall Street Journal article that ‘costed’ Sanders’ plans but, as Sanders pointed out, this ignores the fact that people would have more disposable income as they wouldn’t have to pay for private insurance.
I live in England and I have only ever lived in a country that has universal healthcare, and it’s pretty awesome; as a result I would like my American brothers and sisters to also not worry about going bankrupt when they get sick. Putting my personal bias aside, if you are making the case for universal healthcare you have to be more specific that ‘it’ll save money’. If the Sanders campaign can commission economists to figure out that real youth unemployment among African-Americans is 51%, you can get an economist to work out how much a middle-class family would save under a single-payer healthcare system.
On taxes Sanders responded to a disingenuous point from Hillary Clinton. Clinton said that she wouldn’t raise taxes on middle-class Americans and straw-manned Bernie Sanders as wanting to do so. Sanders’ response to this was that the ‘tax rise on middle-class Americans’ progressives want is $1.61 per week which would pay for paid family and medical leave, which is “a good investment”. Although Clinton’s ‘no new taxes’ point received some applause, Sanders’ response also did.
To conclude Bernie Sanders’ performance was good but it was not the rousing result that supporters of his were hoping for. To be honest I don’t think that any of the candidates won based on the substance of the debate. The circumstances surrounding the debate does provide Sanders with an uphill struggle. If Sanders’ debate performance energises his grassroots campaign in Ohio and New Hampshire specifically, his performance should be seen as a success. We will have to wait and see.