Thursday night’s Democratic debate proved that we’ve got a whole lot of substance on the left.
It's “we” versus “I.”
In a lot of ways, that's all this election is about on the Democratic side.
Bernie Sanders talks in “we” all the time. “We need a political revolution revolution,” “We have millions of working people living in poverty and 99 percent of all new income is going to the top one percent” and “We are building the largest grassroots campaign in history.”
In contrast, Hillary Clinton is running a campaign dominated by “I.”
“I will deliver for you” she often says, “I will fight to rein in Wall Street” and “I want to be the president who takes on all the big problems.”
After her loss in New Hampshire where Sanders beat her 95-5 in honesty and trustworthiness according to exit polls, Clinton is going to be tested as to whether she has “we” in her.
Because voters want to be part of something -- not just led by the most competent, experienced technocrat.
This has been holding her back, not that she isn’t qualified to be president or that she isn’t what America needs. (For what it’s worth, I think she is the most qualified and exactly what America needs).
Clinton isn’t making voters – or enough voters – enthusiastic about being part of her vision for the future of America.
That said, she began her “we” revolution after her New Hampshire loss offering that “we have to break through the barriers of bigotry” and “we’ve learned it’s not whether you get knocked down that matters: It’s whether you get back up.”
And Thursday night she got back up.
In the Wisconsin debate, Clinton didn’t look like she was fresh off the kind of defeat she suffered in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
She was reasoned and passionate, and most of all a fierce defender of her record and plans to build on the successes of the Obama presidency in health care, the economy and a start at improving race relations in America.
Clinton weathered the storm on her Wall Street donors better than usual – there was no “that’s what they offered” moment – but this continues to be her major weakness as Sanders builds a coalition of voters who believe that the economy is rigged and that Wall Street owes the American people billions of dollars after the recession.
Clinton can continue to invoke the fact that Obama took more Wall Street donations than any candidate in history, but it won’t matter to those who demonize the financial services industry across the board: they just aren’t going to be Clinton voters.
“A vote in 2002 is not a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016” may have been the best sound-bite of the evening for Clinton. Everyone knows, including Sanders’s supporters and Sanders himself, that she has more foreign policy experience and a deeper understanding of how complicated the situation in the Middle East is.
His vote against the Iraq War is certainly a positive, but it doesn’t make him commander-in-chief material.
Whether or not you agree with Clinton’s actions as secretary of state or her Iraq war vote, I don't believe anyone would dispute her readiness to take on this role and that Sanders has much to learn to do this job well.
This isn’t to say that Sanders didn’t have a great night. He absolutely did.
When Sanders talks about bringing Americans together with an agenda that levels the playing field and makes sure that people have a decent standard of living you can see why he won over 80 percent of the youth vote in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
He’s idealistic, committed and has a very clear sense of right and wrong – something that many accuse Clinton of struggling with.
This undoubtedly works in his favor.
In a similar vein, Sanders' strong belief that Americans deserve universal health care and free college tuition is right on point for those that are supporting him because he understands that wages are too low, that the economy hasn’t recovered and that our system only favors those at the top.
These are cornerstones of his political revolution and part-in-parcel of his criticisms of Obama for not going far enough with his agenda.
While the chances of Sanders being able to accomplish these goals are slim at best – especially when you consider that we’re unlikely to have a Democratically controlled Congress in 2016 – you can’t have a revolution without dreaming big. And there are so many who are struggling that they really need to dream big.
So who won Thursday night’s debate? They both did.
Clinton continued her argument for experience and pragmatism with bold goals, but not arguably unachievable ones. And Sanders emphatically supported his revolution, calling for a government that represents “all of us,” as he put it.
And to return to my original premise, Clinton used “we” a little bit more than usual Thursday night, but it’s likely that she will always be someone who favors “I.”
For me, that’s just fine. I believe it will be fine with voters when all is said and done, too. But she has to keep working to get more “we” in her message because you know Sanders isn’t about to start talking in “I.”