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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What We Learned from Last Night's Noisy, Pissed-Off Democratic Debate

The latest contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was unmistakably hostile, but as usual, neither candidate landed a knockout punch.
April 15, 2016, 4:00am
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders at Thursday's Brooklyn debate. Photo by Seth Wenig/AP Photo

There was supposedly a Democratic debate going on in the Brooklyn Navy Yard Thursday night, but anyone flipping channels past CNN might have confused the relentless shrieking cheers for the sounds of a campaign rally.

For two hours, the two increasingly cranky candidates interrupted each other—and talked right over the moderators—whenever it suited them. Nearly every time either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders made a point, the audience burst into howling applause, punctuated by the occasional round of boos and heckling directed toward the stage. It was the sort of behavior you might expect from noisy young Sanders fans—there were plenty of "Ber-nie!" chants throughout the night—but Clinton had her own band of whooping partisans there, and they treated the ninth Democratic debate like it was an NBA game.

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Basketball has one big advantage over politics though: At least there's a clear winner. While Clinton and Sanders definitely came to Brooklyn ready for a brawl, neither candidate ended the night with a clear victory, and neither had any breakthrough that might change the narrative of this interminable primary campaign.

Clinton, who is leading by double digits in New York primary polls, continued to cast herself as the hard-eyed realist who knows what policies can actually be achieved politically, and who can build on the current administration's success in pushing a liberal agenda. Though she talked up her "big, bold, progressive goals for America" in her opening statement, you got the sense that this was mostly because the democratic socialist standing next to her is so unquestionably bold and progressive. Clinton's goal has never been to start a revolution—her message is that she's a proud product of the Democratic Establishment, and she's here to help.

Of course, we knew this about Clinton before Thursday's debate. It's an argument we've heard from her many times, just as we've heard that Sanders is, as he put it in his opening statement, "determined to end a rigged economy where the rich get richer and everybody else get poorer, and create an economy that works for all of us, not just the One Percent," and that he, unlike Clinton, isn't funded by special interests and super PACs.

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What made Thursday night different was its unmistakable hostility. After months of relatively genteel political discourse, the nastiness simmering between the Democratic presidential campaigns finally crept onto the debate stage. Both candidates spent some of the night doing the "Mad? No, I actually think this is funny" chuckle when attacked, but they weren't fooling anyone.

It's been a long campaign—much longer than anyone anticipated it would be—so it's not surprising that at this point, the fissures between the campaigns have opened into canyons. Sanders, in particular, seemed to relish backing the frontrunner into corners. As the debate opened, he walked back—ever so slightly—his recent comment that Clinton's vote for the war in Iraq made her "unqualified" to be president, but maintained that he questions her judgment

He proceeded to launch a series of attacks, taking shots at her for, among other things: supporting fracking in other countries as secretary of state, failing to get behind a $15 federal minimum wage, taking money from fossil fuel lobbyists, withholding transcripts from her Goldman Sachs speeches, and backing the US military intervention in Libya. (Clinton defended that last decision, even though Libya has essentially become a failed state.) In a moment that was a break from the norms of presidential politics, he went after her for being overly pro-Israel, saying that we need to "treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity." At several points, he accused her of not answering the moderators' questions, prompting a round of pointless bickering in which Clinton insisted she had so answered the question, and Sanders replied that no, she had not, and so on.

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Clinton's main line of attack—that Sanders is an impractical dreamer—was summed up in the "It's easy to diagnose the problem, it's harder to do something about the problem" line she repeated a couple times. Her strategy was to cuddle up to President Barack Obama, touting her role in the administration's progressive accomplishments while spinning Sanders's critiques of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and the Paris climate change agreement as attacks on the popular president's record.

It's hard to say who came out on top in these little spats. When Sanders struggled to come up with an example in which Clinton's ties to Wall Street influenced her political decisions, Hillary fans likely rolled their eyes; Bernie Bros were already crowing only about her 2001 vote for the bankruptcy reform bill backed by banks and credit card companies.

For the most part, the debate was more theater than politics. From Sanders mocking Clinton's claim that she'd been tough on Wall Street, to Clinton's guns-come-down-from-Vermont-and-kill-New-Yorkers bit, the whole thing was obviously a show. By the time it got to the point where Sanders was taken to task for not doing enough fundraising for the Democratic Party, it was clear that it wasn't even a good one.

As is always apparent in these debates, the candidates agreed more than they disagreed, making their wrangling sometimes resemble arguments over which flavor of ice cream an imaginary castle in the sky should be. The federal minimum wage currently sits at $7.25; getting a Republican-controlled Congress to bump it up at all—let alone to $12 or $15—will be next to impossible. Substantive gun control measures are similarly out of reach. And both candidates support college affordability, criminal justice reform, gay rights, renewable energy, reining in Wall Street, paid family leave, Planned Parenthood—the list goes on.

This agreement is why perhaps the most important moment of the night came late, when Clinton suddenly pivoted from talking about the Supreme Court to abortion:

"We've had eight debates before, this is our ninth. We've not had one question about a woman's right to make her own decisions about reproductive healthcare, not one question," she said. "And in the meantime, we have states, governors doing everything they can to restrict women's rights. We have a presidential candidate by the name of Donald Trump saying that women should be punished. And we are never asked about this."

That earned Clinton her biggest swelling of applause, and had the added benefit of reminding voters that she is the first serious female candidate for president in American history. It also pointed to a sobering truth: For all the sound and fury, the primary is just a prelude to the general election, a contest with high, real-world stakes. Despite the challenge from Sanders, Clinton is clearly assuming she's going to be leading the charge against the Republicans come November. And she's probably not wrong.

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