If you want to know the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties, watch (or re-watch) Thursday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
In seven GOP debates so far, the American people have been witness to a political party — and its presidential aspirants — that speaks in frighteningly simplistic and often shockingly ill-informed ways about major public policy issues.
But Thursday night, Americans saw something with the Democrats — a substantive, policy-oriented, fact-based debate between Sanders and Clinton. Sanders is a bit of a one-trick pony on depicting the evils of Wall Street and big money, but he’s nothing if not effective and passionate in his delivery. Clinton took well-practiced umbrage at Sanders’ implication that she’s not a progressive, and she put him on the defensive, did an excellent job of defending her liberal bonafides, and made a persuasive case for why she would be a more successful president than Sanders.
There was, however, one major exception — foreign policy. And it highlighted the major dividing line between the two candidates and why one of them is qualified to be president and the other is not.
It’s been obvious for some time that Sanders is not well versed — and is uncomfortable — in talking about foreign policy and national security-related questions. Thursday night, it showed itself to be a real problem and an almost disqualifying issue for him.
Sanders has done a good enough job of memorizing his answers on questions related to ISIS and the Middle East in general. He has one overriding talking point — he got the Iraq War right and Clinton got it wrong. But as Clinton rightly pointed out, “a vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS” and it’s not a vote for dealing with the myriad international challenges and opportunities that will confront the next president. Sanders appears to believe that his opposition to the war in Iraq gives him a gold star in foreign policy judgment. The problem is that when it comes to talking about any other issue, Sanders appears clueless.
When NBC moderator Chuck Todd asked him how long US troops would be in Afghanistan, Sanders said, “Our great task is to make certain that our young men and women in the military do not get sucked into never-ending, perpetual warfare within the quagmire of Syria and Iraq.”
That’s great, but what would you do about Afghanistan, Senator Sanders?
He had no answer, except to say “we can’t withdraw tomorrow.” And frankly it’s hard to escape the sense that Sanders has little idea of what’s happening in Afghanistan, the site of America’s longest-ever war.
When asked how he would rank the potential threat to US national security of Iran, Russia, and North Korea, Sanders started talking about ISIS, because that seems to be the one foreign policy answer he knows. When pushed by Todd to answer his question, Sanders said the following:
“Clearly North Korea is a very strange situation because it is such an isolated country run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one, who seems to be somewhat paranoid. And, who had nuclear weapons.
“And, our goal there, in my view, is to work and lean strongly on China to put as much pressure. China is one of the few major countries in the world that has significant support for North Korea, and I think we got to do everything we can to put pressure on China. I worry very much about an isolated, paranoid country with atomic bombs.
“I think, clearly, we got to work closely with China to resolve the serious problems we have, and I worry about Putin and his military adventurism in the Crimea and the Ukraine.’’
This answer is practically Carson-esque — and it’s embarrassing. Sanders has in recent weeks begun to argue that he’s more electable than Clinton; that what he lacks in foreign policy experience he makes up for in foreign judgment … because he opposed the Iraq War. I’d take a different view. Sanders is running for president, a position in which foreign policy decision-making may well be the single most important part of the job. His reluctance to engage on international affairs is a serious indictment of his judgment.
A lot of post-debate commentary will to make an issue out of Clinton’s ham-handed answers on her paid speeches — and the exorbitant fees she received for them. That issue pales in comparison to Sanders’ lack of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs. If Sanders is really serious about becoming president he needs to take the time to bone up on these issues. But the man’s been a candidate for nine months. He’s been in public life for a quarter century. If he hasn’t learned by now, that kind of tells you all you need to know.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter@speechboy71.