A Study in Contrasts: How Clinton Sealed the Deal in Her Maddow Interview

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.

RACHEL MADDOW: It seems like, looking ahead at that general election right now, we’re at a— we— we’ve just hit a turning point. Last night all three of the Republican candidates who are left— seemed to basically abandon what had been their previous pledged that they would support the ultimate nominee at their party, whoever it was. None of them are saying that any longer.

Which means whoever they pick, there’s a really good chance that the Republican party is not going to all be in favor of their presidential nominee. Now, as a— as a Democrat, looking ahead at that general election, do you basically look at the Republican party in this kinda crisis and say, you know, “Good riddance. That party needs to be blown up.

”I hope they come back as something better.” (LAUGHS) Or— or do— do you worry about that? I mean, we are a country with a two-party system. Do both parties need to be strong and— and— and sane, and— together enough to really contest the ideas that the country needs to fight about?

Notice how deftly Clinton reframes what Maddow presented as GOP chaos as mere surface distractions that obscure all their candidates' commonalities.

HILLARY CLINTON : Well, I do favor two strong parties. And at different points in our recent history the Republicans have been stronger, and more unified than the Democrats. At other points we have been. And clearly there is a lot of turmoil going on— among Republican voters, and elected officials, and party leaders, that they’re going to have to sort out.

But if you really look at what the three remaining candidates have said, what they’ve stood for, I think they are much closer in their ideology and their position on issues than their personal animus perhaps suggests.

So, whoever emerges, I’m going to hopefully be the Democratic nominee to take on where they stand when it comes to how we get the economy going. We’re not going back to that trickle-down economics snake oil that doesn’t work, and cannot work.

Where they stand on health care. We’re not going to repeal the Affordable Care Act, we’re going to make it work for people. You go down the list. They have a very strong affinity when it comes to— ideology and issues. They may express it in different ways. And some are more colorful than others, certainly.

But when you really strip it down they are peddling the same failed policies that they have for the last 30, 40 years. And the country cannot tolerate that. So, whoever emerges, whether it’s one of the three, or they engineer some kind of convention coup.

Whoever emerges is going to be on the wrong side of what our county needs to do. How we meet the test that I laid out in my speech today. Can the next President actually produce positive results in peoples’ lives, starting with good jobs and rising incomes.

Can the next president and commander in chief keep us safe, and demonstrate strong, effective, smart American leadership in the world. And can the next president bring our country together. I’ve seen no evidence that these three candidates on the Republican side can meet those tests. So, I’ll let them fight it out however they choose. I’m going to keep talking about what I will do as president to make sure we do meet those tests, and that our country is better off because I will have served.

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.

HILLARY CLINTON : Well, I’ll let voters decide that. But I look forward, if he is the nominee and I’m the nominee, to really going after him on issues. ‘Cause remember, the Republicans still have not gone after him on issues, in large measure because they agree with him on so many issues.

So, when they start moaning, and groaning, and gnashing their teeth, and the best they can do is insult each other’s wives, and call each other names, they’re not dealing with issues. Because they’re afraid to deal with him on issues, because he’ll turn around and say, “Well, you said this, and you said that, and I know where you stand.”

I’m the only one who will be finally taking him on on issues. And I believe once we start doing that the American people who have been watching this like the most ramped-up— you know, reality-celebrity TV show are going to start saying, “He is scary. He is dangerous. We can’t— you know, we can’t let him go forward.”

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.

RACHEL MADDOW: Let me ask you about— a more present issue, in the sense that it’s happening right now. Which is that— President Obama has nominated Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.


RACHEL MADDOW: If you are nominated by the Democratic party, and you are elected president in November, would you ask President Obama to withdraw that nomination in the lame duck so that you could put forward your own nominee? Or, would you be okay with that nomination going forward in the lame duck, if that’s what the Republican Senate wanted to do?

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.

HILLARY CLINTON : You know, I— I really find— this whole— line of questioning one that I’m not comfortable with, because I— we have one President at a time. And I think part of the problem right now is the Republicans are trying to act like he’s not really still president.

I was one of the 65 million people who voted to reelect President Obama. So, my voice is being shut out because the Republican Senate won’t actually process— Judge Garland’s— nomination. So, I don’t want to— I don’t want any daylight between me and President Obama.

I want to support his Constitutional right and obligation. I want to keep the pressure, as I did in the speech that I gave at— the University of Wisconsin-Madison, talking about what’s at stake in the Supreme Court. So, let’s stay focused on what this court has before it. Because there are some very consequential decisions that are pending. And, you know, let’s keep the pressure, which you can see is beginning to affect some of the Republican incumbents who have tough races— for reelection.

I want them to feel as much heat as possible. I don’t want to give them any way out. So, I’m stickin’ with the President. The President’s prerogative, his Constitutional responsibility. And— that’s what I’m going to stand up for.

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.

Bernie's Turn

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.

MADDOW: Senator Sanders, I have — I promise I won’t ask you only process questions here, but I do want to ask you about something, uh, that arose this week from your campaign that I, um, I — I disagree with on factual grounds. And I’ll tell you what it is.

Your campaign said this week that Secretary Clinton is leading overall basically because you chose not to compete, um, in eight states — in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee.

Uh, and the reason I say I take factual issue with that is because, you know, I — I saw the footage of your rallies in — in Texas and Virginia, at least.


MADDOW: We reported you were first on the ground ahead of Clinton...


MADDOW: — in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee.

Why is your campaign now saying that you...

SANDERS: Well, I don’t — look...

MADDOW: — simply didn’t try in those states?

SANDERS: Rachel, you’re talking — you say you don’t want to talk about process, this is exactly what we’re talking about. One person said that. I don’t know the context of that.

Once we were in Texas. We had great rallies in Dallas, in Houston, uh, and in Austin. Of course we campaigned there.

I think perhaps what Tad meant by that is we did not put a lot of money into TV advertising that we know those states would be difficult states for us and we used our resources elsewhere.

But to be honest with you, we put a lot of money into South Carolina and we did poorly.

So of course we did compete in Mississippi, Alabama, not a whole lot, to be honest with you.

But I think what Tad was meaning is that we did not put a lot of resources into those states.

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: Senator, you have been a fierce critic of the influence of the wealthy and big business on our politics, not just on who gets their way but who sets the agenda. As Republican legislators and governors have recently been weighing new laws that are discriminatory, particularly against LGBT people in North Carolina, in Georgia, in Missouri and Indiana, big business, including Bank of America, today in North Carolina, has weighed in strongly against those discriminatory laws. Do you think those businesses should butt out of those issues? Is it inappropriate for them to try to wield political influence even when they do it in a progressive way?

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: Well, look, they have — when we look at politics in America, you have CEO’s of major corporations who have children who are gay, who have friends who are gay, whose wives or daughters have had abortions — they live in the real world and they’re responding to the type of very right win reactionary policies and I understand that and I appreciate that. When I talk about money in politics, what I talk about is the Koch brothers and billionaires spending hundreds of millions of dollars, along with Wall Street, to create a situation where politicians will be elected who represent the wealthy and the powerful.

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.

MADDOW: One last question for you, Senator. I know you’re kind of tight today. Uh, and it is about your prodigious fundraising. After those huge wins this weekend in those three caucus states, we know that within something like 24 hours, your state had raised $4 million. Um, you have shown an incredible ability to tap large numbers of people for small amounts of money that really, really add up and you’ve got, ostensibly, infinite resources to stay in this campaign as long as you want...

SANDERS: Well...

MADDOW: — no matter what else happens.

I have to ask, though, if you have thought about whether or not you will, at some point, turn your fundraising ability toward helping the Democratic Party more broadly, to helping their campaign committees for the House and the Senate and for other — for other elections?

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.

SANDERS: Well, right now, Rachel, as you are more than aware, our job is to — what I’m trying to do is to win the Democratic nomination. And I’ll tell you something, I never in a million years, Rachel, would have believed that we could have, uh, received over six million individual campaign contributions averaging 27 bucks apiece, a very different way of raising money than Secretary Clinton has pursued.

So right now, we are enormously appreciative. You’re right, without that type of support, we would not be where we are right now. We would not be able to continue this campaign to the Democratic convention. So I am just blown away and very appreciative of all of the kind of support that we have gotten from grassroots America.

MADDOW: Well, obviously your priority is the nomination, but I mean you raised Secretary Clinton there. She has been fundraising both for the nomination and for the Democratic Party. At some point, do you think — do you foresee a time during this campaign when you’ll start doing that?

SANDERS: Well, we’ll see. And, I mean right now, again, our focus is on winning the nomination. Secretary Clinton has access, uh, to kinds of money, uh, that we don’t, that we’re not even interested in. So let’s take it one step at a time. And the step that we’re in right now is to win the Democratic nomination.

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.

"We'll see."

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.

The Contrast

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.

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