Last night's debate in Wisconsin was defined by two personalities: Hillary Clinton's calm, cool and collected command of details, and Bernie Sanders' bewilderment at being forced to delve into the specifics of policy and to confront his own attitudes towards the Democratic party and President Obama.
Hillary Clinton, brilliantly and strategically, dismantled Bernie's talking points and promises one by one, by pointing out that Sanders' numbers don't add up, that you cannot noun-verb-Wall-Street your way through the presidency, and that once you knock down his one-liners, Sanders is in real trouble. Bernie Sanders, for his part, became visibly frustrated with, wagging his fingers and shaking his head throughout the debate.
Right from the beginning, Clinton challenged Sanders' health care plan and its cost, demanding that candidates running for president level with the American people about their plans.
In disbelief that Hillary Clinton would call him out like that (and as we have run the numbers here at TPV, she is of course correct), Sanders could only repeat those bunk numbers. But he did another thing that one should never, ever do in a debate. He repeated his opponent's charge against him. Sanders accused Clinton of being inaccurate when she says that he would dismantle the existing health insurance infrastructure - including Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP and Obamacare - which is inevitable for a single payer system, one system, is to take the place of the existing many. Clinton, chomping at the beat, pounded on it.
Long ago, I read a book by a UC Berkeley linguist named George Lakoff. The book was called "Don't Think of An Elephant." The title is a thought experiment. You see, when you are told "Don't think of an elephant," an elephant is about the only thing you can think of. Putting a 'don't' before it doesn't stop you from doing that. Similarly in a debate, repeating your opponent's frame and putting a 'no' before it doesn't stop that frame from being established.
Clinton repeated Sanders' claim too, regarding the reference to the CNN town hall, but she had immediately prior to that set the frame that Sanders' plans are too big and unrealistic, and then used Sanders' quote as an example.
Health care wasn't the only place Clinton forced Sanders to play on her turf. In fact, it could be said that she took the lead early and never let it go. Hillary Clinton wanted to establish a singular theme throughout the debate that was summed up in her closing: that a president has to be capable of handling a multitude of issues in great detail.
Her case to the voters is her capacity to be aware of, advocate for, and act on that broad range of issues. Clinton's case is that a president has to address a broad range of social inequities that stretch from racism and homophobia to women's rights and workers' rights - and that she was the person who is best suited to address that broad range of inequities. Her case against Sanders is that he is a narrowly focused, one-issue (namely beating up on big banks) warrior who does not have the depth of detail to be an effective president (thanks to Vox for catching it first).
Sanders actually made it easy for Clinton to make that case. On issue after issue, Sanders kept rolling back to his crusade against Wall Street.
Asked to name two great leaders - one American and one foreign - on the issue of foreign policy, Sanders chose FDR, not because of FDR's conduct in World War II but because of his handling of the post-depression banking regulations.
Asked about campaign donors on the Republican and Democratic sides, Sanders railed about Wall Street contributions.
Challenged about the cost of their proposals, Clinton put a number on it - $100 billion a year - while Sanders continued to rant about how all the money he needs could be raised by taxing Wall Street (but never telling us how much would be needed).
Asked about race in America, he complained about tax cuts for billionaires and Wall Street shortchanging the middle class and claimed because of his warrior status against Wall Street, he'd be a better president for race relations than the country's first black president. After all, what could a black guy who won big twice with the broadest coalition of voters can possibly know about race?
Essentially, Sanders made Clinton's case for her that he is not interested in anything other than punishing Wall Street. Worthy a goal as that may be, it's not enough to make a president.
But Bernie did more than that for Hillary. He left huge openings for Clinton to pounce on, and boy, did she ever. She decimated his case that someone who takes campaign contributions from people on Wall Street is beholden to the financial industry by pointing out that at that point, candidate Barack Obama had more Wall Street contributions than any Democrat in history, and yet President Obama stood up to Wall Street, went after them and passed the most far reaching reforms of the financial sector.
Clinton wouldn't let the smackdown be limited to just the President's financial regulations. She turned around Sanders' Wall Street demagoguery and reminded Americans that standing up to powerful interests in Washington includes at least one that Sanders has not been very willing to stand up to.
I couldn't think of a better line to paint Sanders as a one-issue wonder and a broken record.
Sanders helped Clinton make another point: that she was the person who would carry President Obama's torch the loudest and proudest. Bernie's constant Wall Street bashing allowed Hillary not only to use President Obama as an example to claim her own independence from banks, but also to draw attention to Sanders' comments disrespectful to President Obama. Artfully and skillfully, Clinton reminded Democratic voters that while Sanders was calling the President weak, a disappointment, a leadership failure, and writing the forward for Bill Press' anti-Obama screed, she was one first serving in his administration and then defending his record on the campaign trail.
But Clinton's defense of Obama wasn't merely a nod to the Democratic electorate among whom the President is popular, nor was it merely an endorsement of his legacy. It was part of Clinton's argument painting Sanders as a one-issue candidate. She was essentially pointing out that Sanders' Obama-bashing reflects his tunnel vision.