Early in Thursday night’s Democratic debate between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the political independent and self-described Democratic Socialist was asked to respond to the large number of elected officials who have endorsed Clinton, who also served eight years as senator from New York and two terms as first lady when her husband Bill was president.
“She has almost the entire establishment behind her,” Sanders admitted in what seemed like a concession. But then the Vermonter flipped the script. “Our campaign,” he said, his voice growing louder, “is a campaign of the people, by the people and for the people.”
“I represent ordinary Americans who are not all that enamored with the establishment.”
It seemed like an artful turn on a topic that had dogged Sanders for a brief period in the days before Monday’s Iowa caucuses, but it was also as good a snapshot of this race — both the Democratic and Republican contests — as any candidate has offered so far.
It is a situation that has already vexed GOP Brahmins as they have watched their legacy establishment standard-bearer struggle while a real estate mogul and two first-term Senators duke it out for primary primacy. But for the Democrat who was, even just half a year ago, assumed to be the prohibitive presidential favorite, it has forced her to confront not only her campaign strategy, but her personal history, as well.
Witness this odd moment from Thursday night: “While we’re talking about votes,” Clinton said, turning to Sanders, “you’re the one who voted to deregulate swaps and derivatives in 2000, which contributed to the over-leveraging of Lehman Brothers, which was one of the culprits that brought down the economy.”
This was Clinton again trying to defend herself against one of her opponent’s most pointed accusations — that she is too close to Wall Street to effectively police it. But Thursday, she tried to do it by accusing Sanders of voting for a bill that was signed into law by her husband.
Sanders, then a member of the House of Representatives, did indeed vote for the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000. It appears an anomaly in the Vermonter’s voting record on financial regulation, but it seems nowhere near as politically awkward as one Clinton faulting Sanders for siding with the other.
“There was a lot of tonight that was fought on his terrain,” said MSNBC host Chris Hayes after the debate — and he was not referring to the geographical proximity of New Hampshire and Vermont. Yes, the debate hall seemed to be filled with Sanders supporters — likely reflective of the senator’s big lead in state polls and the population of host-town Durham, home to the University of New Hampshire — but the ground that proved so shaky for Clinton was topical: Big money donors, big banks and the big speaking fees she’s collected from financial institutions.
“She cannot win when they’re talking about Goldman Sachs,” Hayes said.
And while — considering all four Democratic debates so far — Hayes seems to be right, the story is shaping up to be bigger than Sanders’ relentlessly on-message approach.
The Sanders campaign has tapped into a visceral dissatisfaction with the status quo — but then, so has Donald Trump. Yes, a man who brags about his huge (yooooge) fortune seems a strange ideological bedfellow for the candidate who rails against economic inequality, but for many in New Hampshire and across the United States, both are seen as “not beholden to their donors,” according to Katie Tur, who has been covering the Trump campaign for NBC News.
Both Trump and Sanders represent the sense among a growing part of the electorate that the talking points of so-called establishment candidates skip over the concerns of the working class.
It has been a theme increasingly evident in the coverage of the 2016 election cycle — where the GOP field is described as needing to coalesce around an “establishment” candidate to beat back “outsiders” Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and where coverage of Sanders rarely fails to point out his independent party status.
It was a theme evident in Sanders’ opening statement when he addressed the “millions of Americans [who] are giving up on the political process” because they see “almost all new income and wealth ... going to the top 1 percent.”
And it was a theme evident in Clinton’s first answer of the debate, when she said “Sen. Sanders and I share some very big progressive goals” — a point she returned to multiple times Thursday night.
But it has proved an increasingly tough line to walk for the repeatedly self-described “progressive who gets things done.” Every time Clinton tried to explain how things got done, she turned to a history of working with, compromising with and sometimes siding with the establishment.
Yes, Sanders, too, spoke of compromising to get things done (most notably in passing reforms for the veterans' health system), and he seemed less in control of the debate when questioned about foreign affairs, but neither of these issues represented the core of his message.
“The Sanders campaign has made a bet that the Democratic primary electorate doesn’t actually care that much about foreign policy,” observed Hayes. “The things that he lost on are things that are not motivating the base.”
But for most of the night, Sanders appeared to be winning. “Sanders kept bringing it home, and it was powerful,” said Time Magazine correspondent Jay Newton-Small after the debate. “People really react to that.”
And that reaction seemed to energize and empower Sanders more. By mid debate, the Senator warned the audience he was going to be “harsh” before stating, “The business model of Wall Street is fraud.” It was an observation that seemed to resonate with the audience — but it greatly upset the very establishment New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who tweeted “Wow! Sanders goes way too far when he says that the business model of Wall Street is fraud. Banking is crucial for our economy.”
Of course, Sanders has never said he was against “banking” — just too-big-to-fail banks — but he does understand how to communicate his displeasure in a way that captures hearts and provokes minds.
“When he is on message,” remarked Hayes about Sanders’ debate performance, “he is extremely good at delivering that message.”
The Clinton campaign likely wanted to communicate something similar — it even dispatched Bill Clinton to campaign in other states Thursday, rather than have the establishment icon in the hall, just begging for a television cutaway. But while Hillary Clinton avoided that uncomfortable Kuleshov moment, the audience in New Hampshire and across the country saw another juxtaposition that probably didn’t serve her well.
With the other candidates now out of the race, it was just Sanders and Clinton on stage. And with that two-shot, Sanders — whose electoral viability has been questioned by many poll watchers — was contextually validated. Clinton may have avoided a visual confrontation with her past, but she was framed by the challenge in the present.
With the one-on-one debate, the challenger held his own against the established candidate. And, as the polls seem to be proving, his anti-establishment message has also hit home.
“That wasn’t just our topic,” said Tad Devine, senior strategist to the Sanders campaign, “that’s where the voters are.”