MSNBC devoted its prime-time line-up last night to a series of extended conversations with presidential candidates. Chuck Todd hosted a Kasich townhall; Chris Matthews hosted one with Donald Trump that (surprise!) sucked up all the oxygen in media outlets; and Rachel Maddow sat down for one-on-ones with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Viewers who watched the Democrats' interviews back-to-back found them compelling, intelligent, and clarifying. Once again, both Democratic candidates are operating in an entirely different, reality-based sphere than the GOP's Cuckoo Cloud Land; and either Democrat would make a better, saner choice for president than anyone the Republicans are left with. You can find transcripts by following these links to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. They are well worth reading in their entirety.
I'd like to highlight a few parts of their respective interviews, and discuss how they clarify the choice Democrats face.
Clinton Is Ready for the Republicans
Rachel Maddow introduced a conversation about the Republican race by pointing out that Trump appears to be winning, and speculated that his nomination would split the GOP apart.
Notice how deftly Clinton reframes what Maddow presented as GOP chaos as mere surface distractions that obscure all their candidates' commonalities.
When Rachel returned to speak specifically about Trump and ask if Clinton feels that he is "manifestly unqualified to be running for president," Clinton was again ready to shift the focus away from the individual candidate and highlight the party he would represent.
Clinton is sending a very clear message to primary voters. In a nutshell, this will be a contrast election, and Clinton is the true Democrat running for the nomination, and the best prepared to keep a laser-like focus on the contrasts between parties, which not only benefits Clinton but also boosts other Democrats on the ballot.
Respect the Office
Turning to the Supreme Court, Maddow gave Clinton another opportunity to draw a clear contrast between her and Sanders, and draw it she did.
What Maddow is doing here is paraphrasing an answer that Bernie Sanders previously gave to her in an interview. While he made noises of support for Garland and said he would vote for him if given a chance, he also expressed disappointment with him, indicated he would pick someone more progressive, and he would ask President Obama to withdraw Garland's nomination if Sanders won, so he could name a nominee more to his liking.
Clinton's answer was great in and of itself, but it brilliantly drew contrast between her and Sanders on their level of support for President Obama.
In this answer, Clinton displays a fundamental respect for the office of the presidency, as well as its current inhabitant. She'll leave it to others *cough* Bernie *cough* to second guess President Obama's judgment and undermine his authority.
The contrast could not be clearer. Sanders jumps at an opportunity to differentiate himself from the current, extremely popular Democratic president, while Clinton hugs him and steadfastly defends both his choice and his authority to do so. And Bernie's position actually legitimizes the GOP Senate's intransigence against voting on Garland. If the current president's wishes can be disregarded in the final months of his term, then why not during the final year? Why not the final two years?
Whether Bernie Sanders likes it or not, he is running to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party, and for the most part (excepting voters in open primaries) Democrats will do the choosing. Democrats love Barack Obama, want someone to defend, continue and grow his key achievements, and don't much like hearing people running him down or undermining his authority. The fundamental dissonance between Sanders' independent outlook and the role he seeks as a party's standard bearer is visible from orbit.
Rachel Maddow then turned to interview Bernie Sanders, who was beamed in from Madison, WI, where he was holding a rally. For the most part, Sanders did a good job with the questions Maddow directed at him. But he struggled with several questions and seemed thrown off guard by them.
At one point, Rachel called out Team Sanders for counterfactual information they spread on a conference call with the press. In addition to bragging about their performance in the latest caucuses and describing what they claimed to be a path to victory, they claimed that several of the states they lost to Clinton were places in which they didn't actually compete. But Maddow pulled receipts and showed how her own reporting on those states demonstrated how impressive Sanders' presence was, in number of offices, paid staff, and volunteers.
Near the end of the interview, Rachel deftly drew a current event into contrast with the principle frame of Bernie's entire campaign. Sanders always pivots to one issue: big banks and big corporations have too much power in our democracy and can undermine or override the will of the people due to their influence.
Maddow's framing of the issue - that corporations can be a force for bad, but they can also be a force for good - pushed Sanders on the defensive.
Sanders attempts, but fails, to portray any progressive stance taken by a corporation as a happy accident where an executive has personal contact with the issue. The fact remains that by and large, corporate America leads the way on workplace protections for LGBT employees, even where local statute imposes no such requirement on them. In fact, one of the reasons LGBT anti-discrimination in employment legislation is stalled in Congress is that much of the public believes it's already law of the land, based on their own workplace experience.
But Maddow's final question, and Sanders' ultimate answer after some evasion, may have done irreparable damage to Bernie's hopes of winning over superdelegates.
With this question, Rachel Maddow raised the issue that is front of mind for every superdelegate and loyal Democratic Party member. Does Sanders appreciate how much he needs Democrats in the Senate, Congress, and in state governments in order to achieve even a fraction of his ambitious agenda? Bernie's ultimate response, after some prodding by Rachel, was honest but deadly.
If it may please the court, allow me to place into evidence a news report from November of last year.
As kids these days say, BOOM, THERE IT IS. Just a few months ago, and after Clinton had done likewise, the Sanders campaign took a step that eased some concerns among superdelegates (and other attentive party members). By signing that agreement Bernie sent a message that will he help the party and raise money to help elect and re-elect downticket Democratic candidates. (Quite a few of them, it must be noted, are themselves superdelegates.)
With two words, Bernie Sanders destroyed those hopes.
Hillary Clinton has been tirelessly raising money not just for herself, but also for the party. When Sanders recently attacked Clinton's high-dollar fundraiser with George Clooney as "obscene," it was lost on the general public, but not on party insiders, that he was attacking a fundraiser for the DNC and state parties. Of the $300K+ entrance fee, no more than $5,400 went directly to the Clinton campaign ($2,700 for primaries, $2,700 for general election) if the donor in question hadn't already maxed out on such contributions. The rest went to Hillary's Victory Fund, which then disbursed the maximum allowable share of that contribution to the DNC, and the remainder to 33 state party organizations that had joined forces with Clinton.
There are superdelegates who will receive state and/or national support for their campaigns directly from those contributions Sanders called "obscene," and in this interview he confirms that his only focus is on fundraising for himself, and "we'll see" about helping others later on.
I suspect that within minutes of that interview airing, an email went out from the Clinton campaign to everyone in the DNC and all superdelegates with the heading "We'll See?"
Bernie just reneged on the last hope Democrats had that he would lift a finger to help shift the balance in Congress and in state governments. He claims he'd be better for the party as its frontrunner, but somehow his amazing charisma, which has so far turned out fewer voters and won fewer delegates, will magically lift downticket Dems to victory.
The cold hard reality is that if Sanders were the nominee, he would be an anchor around the neck of many of those downticket Dems. Most represent states and districts that are not predisposed to like "socialists," and the vast majority of them won't even want to be seen in his company at campaign rallies. If you thought Dems ran from President Obama in 2014, you haven't seen anything yet. When "Will you vote for Bernie Sanders?" becomes a "gotcha" question for Senate and House candidates that they will struggle to answer, it doesn't bode well.
As Team Sanders attempts to woo superdelegates, I imagine they won't find a receptive audience.
In summary, in these dueling interviews, both candidates attempted to draw contrasts with each other, as well as with their ultimate Republican opponent. But Clinton did a much better job of persuading Democratic Party voters that she's the best representative of the party and its platform for the general election. She was most convincing in articulating the contrasts she will draw, and how that will benefit Democrats up and down the ballot.
Oh the other hand, Bernie Sanders was far less effective at proving his worth as the top of the Democratic ticket. Even worse, he seriously undermined his own campaign's assertion that he can win over enough superdelegates to swing the nomination his way. Speaking to a largely Democratic audience, seeking the best Democrat to run for president, Sanders only reminded them how he's never been (or wanted to be) a member of the team.
While the next primary in Wisconsin may be fertile ground for Sanders, the April onslaught of closed primaries in major states with large numbers of delegates, and where Clinton is heavily favored, will remain out of reach to Sanders after this performance. Sanders will run out of opportunities to run up the score in pledged delegates, and he just killed his own campaign's strategy for luring superdelegates to his side.