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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27 Responses to “The two worst arguments from last night’s Democratic debate”

  1. Junetsanchez2 says:

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  2. Phil in FLL says:

    OK, one last factor to consider. Assuming Bernie continues to restrict corporate contributions and rely on small individual contributions, his puny millions would be nothing in the general election against the billions of the Koch brothers et al. That would ensure Republican victory. Ironically, a Democratic ticket that loses because it cannot match the billions on the Republican side would kill any chances of appointing Supreme Court justices who would overturn Citizens United, leaving it in place for the foreseeable future. Please remember that Citizens United was decided by the Republican-appointed justices on the Court, not the Democratic-appointed justices. Changing the rules for both sides has to come after Citizens United is overturned, not before.

  3. Badgerite says:

    Well, alright then. Apology accepted.

  4. Badgerite says:

    I believe I said the Sanders campaign went in that direction. Not your post.
    As in “Which seems to be where the Sanders campaign is going with this crap.”

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  6. 2karmanot says:

    Just thought I’d drop this in here, upon reflection on the vicissitudes of poo flinging and troll enraging, there needs be a hearty congratulations to John for stirring life once more into AmericaBlog’s slightly sclerotic pace these days. OhMyGawd….snipping at old Hills has engendered (pardon the pun) more hysterical bait biting than say, Mormon theology or the woeful pretenses of the Log Cabin capos. In a stroke of genius, of which he is occasionally quite able, John has set the commentator meter into the stratosphere. 700 plus on one thread alone. Just when we were getting accustomed to the reasoned and well written articles of jon Green, there comes along the Aravosis parody of Rupert Murdoch at his most yellow sensationalism.

    The matrix of all this Bernie vs Hillary contretemps was the use of the word ‘whore’, which has not only brought out the bile in seasoned Blue Dog affectionanados, usually restrained in their vague memories of the FDR glory days and now transferred to the right of center Clinton progressivism, which is touted as realistic and collectively embraced as incrementalism. That such new speak has the passion of engendering another eight years of wondrous promises and little legislation pales beside the word ‘whore’, a term I think quite honorable in the historical scheme of things. I have made the case a few times on these threads that whoring is an ancient and if not always honorable profession, at least it is an honest one. I can attest that my attempts at such activity were quite successful in my youth and added to the general pleasures afforded in life. Besides most whores are quite gifted in skillful means, talents which seem to escape the scolding, finger waving of the P.C.uterine puritans of the She proletariat . Les enfants terribles have discovered America Blog once again, but I wonder if the price is worth it. At least I had some fun poking verbal sticks at them, but exciting yappy haters is a short lived amusement. Time for a vacation and a switch to J.M.G for more diversity and objectivity. BYE!

  7. 2karmanot says:


  8. Marcyprippy says:

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  9. Butch1 says:

    I prefer to trust Warren’s narrative on this rather than Clinton’s excuse, sorry.

  10. emjayay says:

    Read timncguy’s comments posted an hour later above.

  11. emjayay says:

    I thought Clinton looked fine behind the podium, but white is not a good choice ever for the shortish and non-skinny. But anyway, the often remarked on in recent years continual decline in civility has been evident in these events. I think maybe the WWE Trumpmania and Republican “debate” events lowered the bar. The unprecedentedly disrespectful behavior of the “You Lie!” Republicans reacting to a Obama (which had nothing to do with him being black) is maybe a part of the process.

    As someone else commented somewhere, the schoolmarm librarians of the League of Women’s Voters ran more useful debates.

  12. emjayay says:

    Interesting light on the complexities of the sausage making of legislation, making it easy to spin things, and sound credible, in any direction. But it turns out that I have already read four WaPo articles already this month, so no article for me. I’ll have to be more careful.

  13. Phil in FLL says:

    I agree with your common sense judgment about money buying influence. I have to disagree with what I think is your implied timeline for doing something about it. My guideline is simple, and I think this guideline was even mentioned in the recent debate in New York: When everyone does—both sides—Democratic and Republican candidates. In order for that to happen, any solution to the influence of money in elections would have to come after Citizens United is overturned, not before. You didn’t explicitly say so in you post, but you seemed to hint at the suggestion that the Democrats should run their general election campaign with no corporate money, while the Republicans run their general election campaign with the full advantage of the billions that the Koch brothers and others would afford them. That would suggest that the Democrats run a general election campaign with one arm tied behind their back and the Republicans would have both arms free. That suggestion is only made by Republican partisans who are pushing for Republican victory in fall.

    Let me summarize. First, Citizens United is struck down. Then—when both parties are required to play by the same rule book—corporate campaign contributions are limited. That is fair. Suggesting that the Democrats should limit corporate campaign contributions preemptively while the Republicans do as they please is just asking people not to endanger Republican victory. As I said, you didn’t mention that explicitly in your post, but it would be good if you clarified your timeline vis a vis the two major parties. Do you mean a legal requirement for both parties at the same time or a suicidal restriction for Democrats only?

  14. emjayay says:

    I think it is better for rational discussion to not employ supposedly clever but dismissive and demeaning name calling, and leave it for reactionary commenters on Yahoo or somewhere. Anyone-bot implies that the commenter is an unthinking tool. Some cleverness may have a point and be amusing at least the first time because of that, but not that one. It is simply dismissing anyone who is not on your side.

  15. 2karmanot says:

    Sorry Badgerbot….didn’t mean to leave you out.

  16. Bill_Perdue says:

    Sanders has trashed HRH HRC so well that even if a few deluded people stay in the DP, assuming she’s the nominee, they’ll soon bolt, just as 27 million 2008 Obama voters did in 2010.

    Many of them went on to build the short lived Occupy movement which was instrumental in helping to create the burgeoning labor left, which is successfully organizing the unorganized and fighting for a decent minimum wage and better wages, hours and benefits.

    Sanders efforts, aimed at building the DP, are going to backfire and help wreck it, just as trump is doing to the RP. Things are looking better and better for the left.

  17. timncguy says:

    Sen Elizabeth Warren’s claims debunked:

    An Excerpt here:

    The Pinocchio Test

    We face a conundrum here. Clinton laid down a marker–that she did not change a vote because of financial contributions — but the example provided by the Sanders campaign does not quite disprove Clinton’s statement.

    One could suspect, as Warren did in 2003, that contributions made Clinton more sympathetic to
    the financial industry as a newly elected senator. But Clinton argues that she voted to advance the bill — “held my nose” — as part of an agreement to make the bill better. Warren says the main provision touted by Clinton was only a fig leaf, but we have no idea of how Clinton
    might have voted on final passage in 2001 because the bill did not come up for a final vote that legislative session.

    In the end, however, Clinton was against the bankruptcy bill at the moment it really counted — final passage in Congress. (In all, 26 Democrats opposed the bill and 18 supported it, along with all 55 Republicans.)

    So for all the money the financial interests contributed to Clinton’s campaign, she did not give them the support they desired. At the same time, however, the vote was so lopsided that Clinton’s support was not needed. In light of subsequent events, Warren’s comments from 2004 at this point appear out of date. We would be curious to know if Warren’s experience as senator has changed her perspective on Clinton’s actions in 2001

  18. Jon Green says:

    I think I was pretty careful here to point out that money influences the process more than Clinton lets on without calling her a “corporate whore.”

  19. Badgerite says:

    Depends. How many people do you think in New York City are employed in Wall Street? How much money do you think comes into the city and the state from their activities. And here is the other point. It was Hilary Clinton as First Lady who seems to have convinced her husband, the president, to veto that bill. And the bill was then brought forth again and signed into law by who? Oh yeah. George W. Bush. Because as well all know, there is not a “dime’s worth of difference” and the Democratic party is the party of the “status quo” and “corporate whores”. So like her vote on supporting military action for George Bush as president which, in reality would have had no real affect on anything, her vote would have affected the outcome here how?
    Not at all. The GOP controlled the votes here and the office that was needed to sign the bill into law. Because Al Gore just was just too much of a “neoliberal” for the Sanders crowd. Or something. Your point is not well taken. Of course money influences the process. But that is a wholly different thing from claiming that Hilary Clinton is a bought and paid for “corporate whore”. Which seems to be where the Sanders campaign is going with this crap.

  20. BeccaM says:

    I thought overall it was a dreadful ‘debate’ — because it wasn’t a debate. It was a schoolyard taunting match orchestrated and egged on by the awful CNN moderators. It was a disservice to BOTH Sanders and Clinton.

    When they weren’t yelling at and talking over each other, they were reciting chunks of their oft-repeated stump speech talking points, sans details and full of pointless accusations flung like handfuls of monkey poo at each other. Each desperate for ‘gotcha’ soundbites, both coming across like angry, semi-coherent old people shouting at clouds. And the hooting and hollering audience, Jesus… Several times last night I wondered if I’d accidentally tuned into a GOP debate.

    As bad as it was hearing them yelling for two straight hours, they both also looked terrible. Clinton, smiling and smirking at inappropriate moments, and she really, really needs a new tailor; Sanders with his incessant finger waving and tongue-darting and apparent refusal ever to look at his opponent… Neither came across last night as especially presidential.

    It was just bad. And I hope this is the last one, because while I thought the early debates were (usually) remarkably on-topic, civil, and adult, this one was the nadir opposite of all those qualities.

    Anyway, the way I see it, we’ll likely know one way or the other which way these Democratic primaries are going in about 11 days, 18 at the most. Four days from now is the New York primary, followed a week later by Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. A week after that is Indiana. Striving for objectivity, Clinton is currently leading in all of those except Rhode Island and possibly Connecticut, but Sanders has been slowly closing the gap. Unfortunately, the gap remains pretty wide and to pull ahead in the pledged delegate counts, Sanders needs to win those states and by wider than expected margins. Narrow wins won’t help enough.

    I could be wrong, but unless there’s a sudden swing or nearly all the polls are wrong, I still think as I did four weeks ago, that “the math” will become impossible for Sanders by 26 April.

  21. Butch1 says:

    I’m finding these events resembling Kabuki Theater more to me than learning anything of substance anymore. We’ve covered these subjects before and at length, now we are entering the cage match fights where they start grappling.

    I think these only give the moderators some sort of “credibility” if you give them a little airtime, but they just cannot help themselves by asking that “got-ya” question. Perhaps the audience wouldn’t go away feeling they got their “money’s” worth if they didn’t.

    Has our politics fallen to this level? The DNC has already decided who the nominee will be, though I think the people aren’t going to accept the answer willingly.

  22. Jon Green says:

    I’d be interested to see some data regarding what percentage of New York State’s population works in the financial sector. I’d imagine it accounts for a lot of money and relatively few votes, which is more or less the point.

  23. Butch1 says:

    I wish he would have brought up that example that Elizabeth Warren spoke of in 2004; that would have shut-up Clinton in an instant.

    OR she would have said, “Okay then, bring up two!” ;-)

  24. Badgerite says:

    Let’s put it this way, I doubt that “speaking fees” buys influence. So far, “speaking fees” is all that Sanders supporters point to. To say that Clinton’s constituency changed when she became the Senator from New York….well, yeah. I suppose it did. New York is the home to these banking interests. But to say this implies that she is a complete sell out is not a leap you can make from one to the other. In fact, I thought she came off rather well in Warren’s retelling of the incident. And it would imply that when representing the whole country, her decision would have been more along the lines of the veto argument.

  25. Badgerite says:

    Au contraire.

  26. Voodoo Chile says:

    Thanks for the well-balanced article. I hope John Aravosis goes back into retirement and leaves you to run the show.

  27. 2karmanot says:

    Excellent article Jon…as always. I notice the Hillbots haven’t left their hive yet.

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