Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

The Democratic debate revealed Sanders’ true strength

In politics, it’s character that counts

October 14, 2015 11:15AM ET

Bernie Sanders was the clear winner in the first debate among candidates for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. And it wasn’t because he is more “likable” than the front-runner, Hillary Clinton. He won because he is more honest.

Hillary Clinton's “likeability” has received a lot of attention over the years. Does she come across as warm and caring? Does she have a sense of humor? Is her laugh convincing? In the 2008 primaries, President Barack Obama famously offered his rival a backhanded compliment, calling her “likable enough.”

For some voters, or at least some Beltway pundits, likability is a compelling factor in deciding who to vote for. But for many of us, it is not. Some voters actually watch debates to discern the candidates’ beliefs on the issues of the day — and last night’s debate revealed far more about the candidates’ beliefs and priorities than it did about their temperaments.

The debate was promoted on CNN as a kind of cage fight for political nerds: “Democratic candidates in one another's face for the first time” read the text at the bottom of the screen. It lived up to the hype: Anderson Cooper, the moderator, was dogged in asking challenging questions and extracting clear and unambiguous answers from reluctant candidates. The tone of those answers was less aggressive; unlike in the Republican debates, the candidates voiced coherent and often reasonable opinions that revealed substantive differences in their views on policy. Only one candidate, Jim Webb, bragged about killing a man, and none spoke hatefully about women or Mexicans (though the fact that this makes the Democrats looks good speaks to the soft bigotry of low expectations!).

Bernie Sanders was the only candidate who wasn't visibly resentful of Cooper’s confrontational tone. When pressed on gun control, the only issue on which Sanders is assailable from the left, he was honest and open about his record on guns — a record for which many on the left will fault him — and open about his reasons for voting no on the 1993 Brady bill, which sought to impose background checks on firearm sales. He represents a rural state, he explained, and voted the way his constituents wanted him to. He has also become a bigger proponent of gun control in recent years, supporting a bill to ban semi-automatic weapons and another to require background checks for people who buy firearms at gun shows (this won him a D- rating from the NRA — respectable, by liberal standards.)

By contrast, Sanders’ rivals resorted to lame excuses to justify or absolve them of their past mistakes. When asked about his 1999 vote to repeal a key provision of the Glass Steagall Act — thus removing a Depression-era bar between commercial banking and investment banking — Lincoln Chafee said “You're being rough on me,” without acknowledging how deregulation contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. When Cooper pressed her on the loss of American life in Benghazi, Hillary Clinton snarled, “I'll get to that.” I’m sure she is as sick of answering questions about Benghazi as most Americans are of hearing about it. What’s more, it’s an episode for which she doesn’t bear nearly as much responsibility as Republicans self-righteously claim. But it was an ill-timed outburst that called attention to her inability even to pretend she feels as if she should have to explain herself — to Anderson Cooper, the voting public, or anyone else. 

Sanders has no interest in sharing cuddly anecdotes about his wife or offspring; he is not concerned with seeming relatable.

Clinton’s increasingly desperate hedging and waffling on everything from her college plan — “I do believe it’s important for everybody to have some part of getting this accomplished” — to her personal wealth — “Neither Bill nor I came from rich families, but we worked really hard our entire lives” — made Sanders’ straightforward, uncomplicated rhetoric even more refreshing. Even when Hillary Clinton says something she actually believes — I see no evidence that she doesn't truly support a woman's right to choose, for example — she sounds as if she's testing out new standup material in a hostile room: She braces herself, says her line, then checks to see how it's landed.

Clinton’s best moment last night was when she took on the myth of big government and the hypocritical Republican attacks on Planned Parenthood. She delivered the line passionately; she knew it would resonate, and as a well-trained political animal, she excels when she’s denouncing her enemies. Clinton’s constant need to hedge bets does make her unlikeable, not because there’s nothing to like about her as a person but because only those who know her best can tell what she really believes about anything. Republican voters already loathe her; why not go off-script?

Bernie Sanders says what he thinks. He doesn't waffle because he doesn’t have to. He doesn't have to work to sound genuine; he is genuine. The reason he doesn't have to practice telling jokes or workshop his laugh is that he's tapping into real anger: the anger people feel after decades of stagnant wages; the anger they feel as they're being interred in mountains of debt; the anger born from watching people who already have so much take more while the rest of us accept less and less; the anger that fueled the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Bernie Sanders says, “I think there is profound frustration with establishment politics.” Hillary Clinton says, “I'm not asking people to vote for me based on my last name.” Bernie Sanders says capitalism has contributed to massive and immoral economic inequality and therefore he is not a capitalist; Hillary Clinton dances around the question, citing her love of small businesses. In an embarrassing-for-Anderson-Cooper exchange during which he grilled her about her use of email, a clearly frustrated Clinton responded, “I've been as transparent as I know to be.”

Which gets right to the heart of the matter: This is the only way she knows how to be. Hillary Clinton is not evil, and I am sure there are even people out there who find her “likable.” She is a standard-issue establishment Democrat, beholden to corporate interests and reluctant to challenge powerful institutions. But Bernie Sanders isn't particularly likable either. He can come across as prickly and didactic. The New Yorker's Margaret Talbot has described him as unable to resist “sermonizing.” He has no interest in sharing cuddly anecdotes about his wife or offspring; he is not concerned with seeming relatable.

We do, of course, see Sanders and Clinton through the distorting prism of gender. And the scrutiny Clinton has received has been tainted and sometimes driven by sexism. But to the extent that we can lay gender aside — and it's hard to do when people like Clinton keep bringing it up, as she did last night with her claim that being a (wealthy, white, powerful) woman has made her an “outsider,” and her cringe-worthy joke about how long women take in the bathroom — it's clear that Sanders is winning on substance, not charm or style or the ever-elusive, over-prized quality of likability.

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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