Voters watching the Republican and Democratic debates over the last week could be forgiven for thinking the two sides are running for different offices.
Voters watching the Fox News town hall special hosted by Bret Baier Monday night in Detroit between Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton could be forgiven for thinking the two candidates are running in two different elections.
No one is better at articulating a liberal vision for the nation than Senator Sanders. He speaks viscerally about so many of the issues that the left considers paramount: income inequality, college affordability, universal health care.
“I believe that health care is a right of all the people,” Sanders told Baier.
Where does that right come from? Baier asked him.
“From being a human being,” Sanders said.
That is not a poll-tested message point or one anticipated by focus-grouping Democratic primary voters. It is an answer delivered from the gut, which speaks to the sentiments shared by liberal voters – and even many moderates – across the United States. In a nation whose existence is predicated on the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, it is anathema to millions of Americans that we remain the only developed country on earth that does not guarantee its citizens universal health care.
But Sanders’ performance underscored his belief that he is running as a movement candidate, who would rather win on his terms or not at all.
He was asked Monday night how he could push a liberal agenda through Congress and he answered that the voters who would put him in the White House would also dramatically reshape the makeup of Congress next year. Both he and many of the viewers watching him on Monday know that this is as likely as a successful Hail Mary pass.
Clinton, on the other hand, was explicit in a reality-based vision for her presidency. She made a point of saying that she was “not over-promising” on policy prescriptions and repeatedly stressed what was possible, if not what was visionary.
“Some people look around and ask why,” said Robert Kennedy once. “I ask why not?” In a political environment mired in toxicity and partisanship, Clinton appeared to acknowledge that those lofty ideals no longer have a place in Washington in the 21st century.
It is no wonder that Sanders appeals to younger voters. With age comes the realization that you cannot gorge at the all-you-can-eat buffet without paying the price for it later – no matter how delicious or tempting it is.
Clinton did not anticipate a hard-fought primary this year, nor did she want one. But, in fact, on Monday night in Detroit Sanders demonstrated why he has already made Clinton a better general election candidate. It is not only that it is impossible to win the World Series without surviving a challenging regular season. It is that in debating a candidate who appeals so viscerally to the hopes, fears and aspirations of so many, she has already figured out how to gain the upper hand against a likely general election opponent who also speaks in inspirational platitudes without providing a realistic assessment of how to get to where he promises to take the nation.
Monday’s town hall was a more genteel and more substantive preview of what a Clinton-Trump general election match might look like. And if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, she will have won by leveling with the voters and convincing them that in politics, as in life, you really cannot have your cake and eat it too.