The first hour of Thursday night’s debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton was full of fireworks — Clinton clearly came out ready to brawl, and Sanders was eager to take her on.
The debate was substantive. But it was also, I’m fairly sure, the least policy-specific hour of a Democratic presidential debate ever.
Instead, the candidates debated ideology, party loyalty, the nature of power in a capitalist system, and other generalizations. They spent an inordinate time (egged on by the MSNBC moderators) discussing what counts toward being a “progressive” (the Democrats, unfortunately in my view, having settled exclusively on that word rather than good old-fashioned “liberal”).
In other words, they sounded a lot like Republicans. I mean, without the sideshow.
Not that there were no policy specifics at all. Democrats can’t help themselves; they can’t just talk about breaking up banks, they have to talk about, as Sanders did, a “a 21st-century Glass-Steagall” (Clinton’s financial regulation plan doesn’t have a catchy name, although it does get better reviews from experts).
More typical of that first half hour, however, was Sanders’s blanket statement that “ the business model of Wall Street is fraud.”
It’s a great applause line, at least for the target audience, just as railing against “amnesty” is a great applause line in Republican debates. It’s the opposite of writing, passing and implementing legislation.
Trouble is, none of the big talk gets done without someone who can write, pass and implement workable plans. Not only that: Running on ideology is really only a promise to, well, be ideological in office.
Sanders is quick to insist how impossible meaningful change is given what he sees as the overwhelming power of Wall Street, power that can be fought only by his frequently invoked “political revolution.”
Politicians usually try to keep their promises, whether it’s on policy or, in this case, on behavior in office.
What’s not really clear, however, is exactly what Sanders is promising, or what he would do on all the mundane regular stuff that presidents need to deal with (including for him, apparently, foreign policy) while he waited for the revolution to make “real” change happen.
One other thing about that first hour. Not only were specific policy suggestions put on the back burner, but the usual Democratic attempts to tie those policies directly to the lives of voters was missing, too.
Sanders tends to see masses of people, not individuals — and in this, one might argue, he is a true socialist. One may certainly argue that has considerable value, but whether it is a winning electoral strategy has yet to be seen. At least, again, beyond those voters who really do consider banking purely fraudulent.
Anyway, after an hour the debate reverted back to Democrats’ version of normal: Veterans’ issues, the death penalty, trade. The candidates knew their stuff and sounded comfortable with policy talk.
But for a while, it was easy to see how the Democratic Party could shift to a mirror image of what the Republican Party has become: Sanders style, without Sanders substance.
And having one party go down that road is bad enough.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.