It has been a month since Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton got together for a presidential debate. When they did in Brooklyn’s Navy Yard Thursday night, it didn’t take long to be reminded why it’s been a while since we’ve done one of these: they haven’t got much new to say.
The Democratic contenders spent most of the evening rehashing arguments they’ve been having for quite a while now — whether it was guns, Wall Street, or health care. The only real difference from their previous encounters was the notably angry and at times nasty tone of this debate — and the growing sense that the gulf between the two of them is growing ever wider.
Sanders still talks in platitudes and slogans about a “rigged economy where the rich get richer and everybody else get poorer,” that America should no longer be the last industrialized country to guarantee health care to all its citizens, and why Citizens United needs to be overturned.
Clinton still thinks it’s all about “delivering results,” coming up with real solutions — not “promises we can’t keep” — and as she put it, that describing a problem is lot easier than trying to solve it.
This has been, since day one, the fundamental divide between these two candidates — the showhorse vs. the workhorse. On no issue was that gap more starkly laid out than their answer to a question on raising the Social Security cap on taxable income. This proposal is seen by many, including Sanders, as a crucial way to raise revenue to shore up the Social Security trust fund. Although Clinton said she supports the idea, she was unwilling to commit to it Thursday night. Instead she talked of backing a number of different ideas for protecting Social Security — less focused on the details than on the long-term goal. She gave a classic politician’s answer — keeping her options open, refusing to make a statement that might come back to haunt her if she wins the White House.
But that wasn’t good enough for Sanders. He wanted a yes or no answer on his specific proposal for a cap.
“There is still something called Congress,” said a clearly exasperated Clinton. “I want to get Democrats to take back the majority in the United States Senate … so a lot of what we’re talking about can actually be implemented.” Yet, Sanders continued to hammer her, even though it was fairly clear that both candidates basically agree on protecting Social Security and avoiding benefit cuts.
It’s Sanders’ aspirational, policy purity versus Clinton’s wonkish focus on what is realistic, both policy-wise and politically. In a sense this has always been Sanders’ major advantage in the campaign. He is responding to the deep reservoir of anger and frustration in the electorate by offering the moon and stars — breaking up the banks, free college education, no more bad trade deals, consequences be damned. Clinton seems congenitally incapable of speaking in such platitudinous terms, no matter the obvious political benefits. She still is wedded to the increasingly antiquated notion that the best politics is the one that doesn’t over-promise, doesn’t get too far beyond what is politically possible, doesn’t raise unrealistic expectations, and doesn’t offer juicy targets for Republican attack ads in the fall.
It was a reminder that in so many ways Clinton is a candidate of the past, one who follows the traditional playbook to winning presidential elections. And as we’ve seen this cycle, it’s a playbook that both Sanders and Donald Trump have thrown out the window — relying on black and white arguments and big promises to build support. But then again, Clinton’s approach is succeeding. While Republican voters are buying the snake oil that Trump is peddling, Democrats are still following Clinton’s pragmatic route — unwilling to go all in with Sanders’ call for a political revolution. It is, however, a worthwhile reminder that if Clinton faced off against an opponent who fared slightly better with non-white voters, she would have been in real political trouble this cycle.
Watch: Highlights from the debate
If anything, what was new and revealing about Thursday’s debate is how much these two candidates appear not to like each other. This was more evident from Clinton, who could barely hide her disdain for Sanders and the increasingly clear sense that she thinks, to paraphrase an old chestnut from Bob Dole, Sanders is lying about her record.
At various points in the debate, she stared at him witheringly from her podium. She could not contain the eye rolls and tight, frustrated smiles that she once kept in check. For his part, Sanders doesn’t seem so much to dislike Clinton as he seems to dislike anyone who disagrees with him or who fails to adopt his views. But it is striking that a man who once publicly eschewed personal attacks and character assassination is now regularly attacking Clinton’s supposed lack of judgment and credibility.
With it increasingly clear that Sanders will likely lose the New York primary next week — and subsequent contests in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and California — he needs to ask himself how far he’s willing to push these attacks on Clinton. The concerns one hears about the long-term impact of this divisive primary fight on Clinton’s prospects in the general election are, generally speaking, overstated. Most Sanders voters will happily cast a ballot for Clinton in November. But with Sanders’ chances already pretty dim — and likely to dim further — he needs to decide what his end game is here. Because voters aren’t learning much in these debates, other than finding new reasons why these candidates don’t like each other.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.