Does Bernie Sanders really want to win? Three Democratic debate takeaways

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To understand what ails Hillary Clinton, let’s rewind past Iowa and New Hampshire – two years back, in fact, to a speech in New Orleans before the National Auto Dealers Association and these words:

“The last time I actually drove a car myself was 1996. I remember it very well. Unfortunately, so does the Secret Service, which is why I haven't driven since then.”

That one passage underscores three of Clinton’s present-day woes: she’s lived in a cocoon for well over two decades; she’s not all that entertaining; there may be no limit to what she and her husband will do for a quick buck (that one appearance earned Hillary a $325,000 honorarium).

Speaking of Clinton’s motoring skills, there’s a fourth problem: rather than turn into the skid caused by alarming droves of young and women voters jilting her for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, she’s overcorrected – trying too hard to pawn herself off as a feverish progressive; leaning too hard on “Lean In” adherents to stay true to the sisterhood.

It’s one way to parse Thursday’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee: would Clinton continue her February fishtailing, or find a smarter way to pull out of the skid?

Here are three observations.

1. Did Hillary Alter Her Message? Yes – and it began with her opening statement.

Clinton noted voters’ anger toward the economy (isn’t it more like frustration?), singling out “young people” as those most furious, and sounded Bernie-lite in calling for “unaccountable money” to be taken out of the system and claiming that America’s economy is rigged “for those at the top” (but certainly not those industrious souls giving six-figure speeches).

Credit Clinton with waking up to 2016 reality. Which didn’t come easy – not until New Hampshire’s gobsmacking.

In 1992, Bill Clinton had the luxury of running in a pre-digital time when the Democratic hard left, beaten down after three presidential meltdowns, offered little in the way of resistance. In 2008, having voted for the Iraq war, Hillary was too late to wake up to liberal Sturm und Drang.

In 2016, Clinton understands the kooky old guy to the right of her on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee stage (physically, not philosophically) is on to something – and she wants in on his act.

And so it’s official: Hillary Feels the Bern . . . until Bernie’s out of the race.

2.  Is Bernie Serious About Winning This? We can quibble over the small stuff – like the batch of spending ideas doubling the national debt. Or how he’d win a single vote in Congress.

Not unlike Donald Trump, Sanders is an implausibly electable candidate who’s cornered the market on “you’re being ripped off” simplicity: “The American people are tired of establishment politics, tired of establishment economics. . .”

The problem: preaching the (Democratic) socialist gospel isn’t a blueprint for victory beyond the most lilywhite of Democratic electorates. Sanders needs to call out Clinton in more glaring terms. Otherwise, he’s gum on her shoe – a protest vote that won’t win many states and, as we’ve already seen post-New Hampshire, will get rolled in the contest that counts most: the delegate count.

Take the issue of illegal immigration as an example of how Sanders falls short. In trying to clarify his 2007 Senate vote against a Senate reform plan, he opted to get all prickly about children’s lives rather than prick holes in Clinton’s record – beginning with not being consistent on immigration.

It wasn’t the only opening he missed.

Sanders could have asked how Clinton could credibly bemoan the state of Black America, having watched her husband sign welfare reform and federal sentencing laws, or why she now espouses gay rights having opposed same-sex marriage in 2008.

Sanders’ trump card – and Hillary’s Achilles heel – is authenticity; he believes what he says; she says what she believes will win the moment.

If Sanders wants to prevail beyond a random few states, he has to drive home that argument. Waiting until the debate’s closing minutes to remind Democrats that she ran against Obama, not him, doesn’t cut it.

3.   On, Wisconsin . . . To Nevada and South Carolina. The drinking game only a fool would have accepted: imbibing whenever Clinton tossed a line to those voters she most immediately needs (well, that and Bernie saying “billionaires” or “Wall Street”).

For a Nevada that’s almost 28 percent Latino (50 percent above the national average) and votes on the Democratic side a week from Saturday: “[H]ard-working immigrant families, living in fear, who should be brought out of the shadows so they and their children can have a better future”.

For a South Carolina that’s almost 28 percent black (compared to 1% in New Hampshire) and holds its Democratic primary the following Saturday: “African-Americans who face discrimination in the job market, education, housing and the criminal justice system”.

Toss in a shout-out here or there to women (equal pay for equal work) and Hillary was the grizzliest of pander bears. Her jacket may have been acid-yellow; her intentions were transparently black and brown.

Milwaukee lays claim to several innovations – the first steel automobile frame and outboard gasoline engine (the latter courtesy of a local named Ole Evinrude), not to mention the ice-cream sundae.

The city’s also home to “sewer socialism” and the idea that the natural counter to the Industrial Revolution was to spruce up society with new sanitation systems, municipally-owned utilities, and better schools and parks.

Hillary Clinton’s challenge moving forward: convincing her party that Bernie’s socialism is a losing proposition for her party, even with the “Democratic” modifier.

And if that doesn’t work in Nevada and South Carolina?

This race will wind up in the sewer.