The two worst arguments from last night’s Democratic debate

Last night’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn was easily the most heated of the nine held so far. It’s clear that these candidates are getting tired of each other after hearing the same critiques of their campaigns over and over.

Perhaps more frustrating is the fact that the overarching themes of the debate have changed. Before Democratic voters started casting ballots, debates between Sanders and Clinton focused largely on ideology and theories of change — Are middle class taxes ever worth raising? Are free trade deals ever good? What is the best way to reform our political system? — but they have since shifted to candidates’ personalities and the nominating process itself.

Not only are these themes less interesting and less productive, they encourage bad arguments. There were a handful of theses thrown around last night that I think range from silly to problematic, and I’m sure plenty of people will be writing about them today, but I want to focus on two:

Clinton: Money doesn’t buy (my) influence

For all of Hillary Clinton’s talk about the need to reform our campaign finance system and set new court precedents that undo Citizens United — she’s even said she’d push for a Constitutional amendment to that effect (while dinging Sanders for having unrealistic plans) — Hillary Clinton’s defense of her financial ties to Wall Street directly relies on the logic behind the court ruling.

Early in last night’s debate, moderator Dana Bash asked Sanders to “name one decision [Clinton] has made as senator that shows she favored banks because of the money she received.” Sanders pivoted to his stump speech line about the “the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street,” to which Clinton responded that “he cannot come up with any example, because there is no example.”

For starters, here is an example:

More to the point, though, is the explicit argument that Clinton made, slightly earlier in the debate, that money does not buy influence:

President Obama had a super PAC when he ran. President Obama took tens of millions of dollars from contributors. And President Obama was not at all influenced when he made the decision to pass and sign Dodd-Frank, the toughest regulations on Wall Street in many a year.

It may be true that Dodd-Frank is, in relative terms, the toughest set of regulations passed on Wall Street in quite some time. It may also be true that Dodd-Frank is, in absolute terms, not a very tough set of regulations. And the reason it isn’t a very tough set of regulations is because Wall Street fought tooth and nail to weaken the bill to the point at which, six years after its passage, much of it has yet to even be implemented — let alone implemented effectively. Those battles were fought in dollars — be they lobbying expenditures or campaign contributions given and withheld.

And we wonder why five of the six major banks just failed their stress tests for the second straight year.

Clinton’s argument discounts all of this. In her telling, a politician’s financial ties to an industry tell us precisely nothing about how that politician will govern with respect to that industry. In requiring Sanders to name a specific instance in which money directly affected a decision (again, see above), both Bash and Clinton framed the issue in such a way that it would only be fair to claim money had a corrupting influence if you caught Clinton making an explicit promise in exchange for an exact sum of money. Not coincidentally, this is precisely the argument that conservatives on the Supreme Court embraced when they removed restrictions on political expenditures in Citizens United. As the court’s majority argued, unless you can establish an explicit quid pro quo — basically, unless you catch a politician on tape soliciting a bribe — you can’t assume that uncoordinated political expenditures represent a significant and distorting influence on policy.

This flies in the face of both common sense and hard data. You can draw a straight line (in fact, economists have modeled this line) between an industry’s political expenditures and the government’s decisions to tax and regulate said industry. When small, moneyed interests hold opinions that don’t jive with the public, the moneyed interests are more likely to have their views reflected in Congress. This is perhaps due to the fact that members of Congress are so heavily reliant on money for re-election that they spend most of their day calling rich people asking them for money instead of reading the bills they are set to vote on.

Corporations don’t spend vast sums of money to plaster their names on sports stadiums just to feel important. They do it because they expect those transactions to be revenue-positive. The same holds true for political expenditures. Rich people don’t spend money on politics to feel important; they spend money on politics because they expect to be represented in turn. You don’t have to conjure up images of suitcases full of cash being exchanged in parking garages to see that where a politician gets their money from can be indicative of who they plan on representing once elected.

Hillary Clinton says that Citizens United was wrongly decided and should be reversed. That’s great, but it also implies that she gets the relationship between political money and political representation on which the case turned. She just wants us to believe that she and a handful of other Democrats are the only people in the country who are immune to this relationship. This argument strains the imagination.

Sanders: The South doesn’t matter

Bernie Sanders is staying in the race despite the fact that his path to victory is all but nonexistent — relying on some combination of flipping superdelegates who he’s railed against and pledged delegates that Hillary Clinton has already won.

On its face, it’s fine for Sanders to stay in the race. Campaigns don’t end when they run out of votes; they end when they run out of money. Sanders has plenty of money. What’s more, his supporters — especially in states that haven’t yet voted — want him to stay in, and he wants to keep emphasizing his issues and move Clinton to the left. This rationale was justified last night when Clinton, in a shift from her previous position, endorsed a $15 federal minimum wage.

But when you stay in after your path to victory has evaporated, you will inevitably be asked to explain why you can actually win. And you will be encouraged to come up with some increasingly ridiculous arguments as to why said victory is possible.

Like this one:

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, screenshot via CNN / YouTube

Look, let me acknowledge what is absolutely true. Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact.

But you know what? We’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up. We got here. We’re going to California. We got a number of large states there. And having won seven out of the last eight caucuses and primaries, having a level of excitement and energy among working people and low-income people doing better against Donald Trump and the other Republicans in poll after poll than Secretary Clinton is, yeah, I believe that we’re going to win this nomination, and I believe we’re going to obliterate Donald Trump or whoever the Republican candidate is.

It is true that states like South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas are some of the most conservative states in the country. It is ridiculous to suggest that South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas have the most conservative Democratic electorates in the country. We’re on the tail end of the partisan realignment that began with the New Deal and was accelerated by the Civil Rights Act, which means that Democrats in the old Confederacy are almost entirely non-white. When you discount the Deep South in a Democratic primary, the upshot of your argument is that black votes don’t matter. And, well, they do.

Relatedly, the fact that white people in the Deep South have staged a mass exodus from the Democratic party means that the most conservative Democratic electorates in 2016 are housed in states outside of the region — states like Oklahoma, Idaho and Wyoming, which Sanders won.

Clinton has also won plenty of states outside of the Deep South, like Ohio and Massachusetts. If you’d like, you could argue that Sanders is winning the more liberal wing of the Democratic electorate, but you can’t argue that Sanders is winning more liberal general election states. Which should be fine, because whether a state is red or blue in November says very little about its worth in a Democratic primary.

All this is to say that as the Democratic primary as gone on and the candidates have nearly shot their bolts with respect to taxation, regulation and health care, the conversation has begun to shift to less productive topics and more ridiculous arguments.

Both of these candidates can do better.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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