Sanders used the opportunity to present himself as a simultaneously more critical and more respectable – even “conservative” – candidate while advancing the economic agenda which has made him so popular among the Democratic base. On a number of domestic issues he clearly scored points against Clinton yet throughout he refused on any topic to seriously challenge or question the front-runner.
The Wars Abroad
Foreign Policy was one of Sanders’ weakest points in the first debate both in terms of his performance and in the mostly orthodox pro-imperial content of his proposals. Having taken no principled stand against the American Empire, his critique of Clinton was mostly limited to her vote for the Iraq War.
The opening statements were focused on Paris. Sanders advocated for the world to “rid our planet of this barbarous organization called ISIS,” before avoiding the question and focusing the majority of his statements on domestic economic issues. Clinton used the opportunity to assert her foreign policy credentials and took the opening left by Sanders to argue that those reforms and improvements “all depend on us being secure and strong.”
The moderators followed up with more questions on ISIS and foreign policy, pushing the candidates to more firmly lay out their positions. Clinton’s perspective was so fantastically full of contradictions that only in a debate around foreign policy as impoverished as that of the US media could she possibly get away with it.
She blamed the rise of ISIS on Bush, on former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on Assad, on “dictatorships,” Hezbollah and the sunni-shia split. In effect everyone is to blame except Obama and the United States, which if anything, didn’t do enough to arm Syrian “moderates.” She defended NATO intervention in Libya while trying to pass the blame on to Europe, defended Jordan’s role in the region (apparently not one of the dictatorships she had in mind) and pushed the overthrow of Assad as a precondition to solving the crisis. She even went so far as to mention “globalization” as a contributing factor as if the United States was somehow not involved in that process.
Clinton reached back into the history of attacks on the US – one could start the critique with US support to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan. Just under this administration, regime change in Libya created political chaos that allowed reactionary islamist factions to thrive. A policy of overthrowing Assad in Syria and armed support for islamist rebel factions was essential to allowing ISIS to rise up and arm itself. The dictatorships which dominate the Middle East are the same ones that the US and Obama have backed to the hilt in Egypt, Qatar, Yemen and every country where inconvenient dissenters express political opposition.
Without even mentioning the role of Israel, it would have been easy to tear apart Clinton’s record as part of the Obama administration and the fantastical vision of regional chaos that is somehow everyone´s responsibility except for the most powerful military and political player.
Sanders however was not that kind of socialist. He has accepted in large part the role of the US empire and – more importantly for this case – he has accepted the importance of defending at all costs the Democrats and the Obama administration.
His response was strong compared to his previous performances. He stuck by his position of climate change being the number one security threat and even argued that climate change was likely to create conditions for terrorism to thrive. He stuck to his position of the invasion of Iraq being behind the regional chaos and the rise of organizations like ISIS and distinguished himself from Clinton by defending his record on that vote and critiquing hers.
Sanders even brought up the US commitment to regime change, briefly condemning the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende. In his words, “These invasions, these topplings of governments have unintended consequences. I’m more conservative than secretary Clinton on regime change.” Yet he was unwilling to link A to B: he referenced historical regime changes while refusing to directly critique those masterminded by the current administration.
Where Sanders’ fundamentally pro-imperial politics prevent him from attacking elements of US policy – his continued support for “humanitarian intervention,” the US occupation in Afghanistan and drone strikes – the lack of critique is understandable while no less appalling to internationalists. Yet here he explicitly drew out, hinted at and then refused to follow up on the real differences with Clinton on foreign policy.
The same came up in a debate over US military funding. Sanders argued that the US should spend less on the Nuclear program and focus resources on counter-terrorism. Clinton brought up Russia and China as threats. Sanders could’ve continued the critique and drawn a clear distinction, but he didn´t.
He wont follow up because anything less than praise and deference requires challenging the hypocrisy and lies of the ruling administration and its party. The defense of Obama and the defense of the Democrats takes precedence – Sanders’ campaign is subordinated to that necessity.
As the debate advanced towards domestic issues, Sanders was on surer ground and O’Malley was able to intervene with some soft critiques of Clinton. Both O’Malley and Clinton tried to press their advantage against Sanders on gun control – but Sanders countered by, of all things, putting himself forward as a skilled compromiser.
When pressed on how much he would tax the rich, Sanders found references to Swedish Social Democracy insufficient and instead reached back to the United States’ past. He said he would tax a lot more, but referring to the rates in the 1940s, he remarked, “I’m not that much of a socialist compared to (the republican) Eisenhower.” For any who doubt that Sanders represents a return to the Democratic Party’s past rather than an advance to a socialist future, this quote is instructive.
The right to education has forced its way into the political debate. Sanders defended his proposal for a free college education for everyone with the understanding that the college degree of today is the equivalent of a high school degree of the past. Clinton opposes free college education beyond community colleges on the basis that “Donald Trump’s sons wouldn´t have to pay,” a flimsy excuse which her opponents let stand.
Healthcare promoted a limited debate. Sanders was able to put forward some strong lines about the failure of the US to provide healthcare for its citizens that met the standard of other developed nations. Clinton struck back by focusing on the need to defend the legacy of and build upon the Affordable Care Act. Sanders found himself trapped between linking his advocacy of a complete overhaul and defending the supposed gains of the existing system.
Racism and Police
Few are going to take the former mayor of Baltimore seriously as an expert on confronting racism and O’Malley’s shopping list of ineffective liberal reforms didn’t impress anyone. Clinton talked at length without saying much other than that she had met the mothers of some victims of police violence.
Sanders attacked what he called a broken criminal justice system disproportionately targeting Black and Latino Americans. The high rate of incarceration was mentioned by him several times as a major problem and he stood by his proposal to legalize marijuana. He proposed an end to mandatory minimum sentencing and that police should be held responsible for murders.
Again however there was no real substantial debate. Clinton wasn’t forced to defend the abysmal records of either of the two most recent Democratic administrations. She wasn’t forced to defend her opposition to the legalization of marijuana. She wasn’t forced to defend anything.
Fight for $15
Both Sanders and O’Malley scored points with the democratic base around the minimum wage. Both support the demand for a $15 minimum wage whereas Clinton limited her proposal to a $12 minimum. Sanders and O’Malley also both put forward clearly Keynesian economic perspectives, arguing that high unemployment is rooted in workers’ lack of purchasing power. Sanders came out hard in defense of the $15 proposal, arguing that it was necessary to move towards a real living wage and pointing to campaigns in Seattle, SF and LA as examples to follow.
Wall Street on Trial?
One of the clearest confrontations, but also one in which Sanders continued to play it soft, was around Wall Street and the influence of Wall Street on the government. After Clinton’s initial defense of her record on Wall Street, he responded that it was “not good enough…let’s not be naive about it. Why has Wall Street been a major, the major campaign contributor? Maybe they’re dumb, but I don’t think so.”
Clinton’s next attempt to defend her Wall Street backing could have come straight out of Dick Cheney’s playbook. She appealed to her role as the New York Senator during 9/11 and defended Wall Street as an American institution that had come under attack then and needed to be reconstructed. Alongside this she mentioned that 60 percent of her donors were women (one wonders of course what percentage that would be of total funds rather than total donations) in a cynical maneuver to marshal identity politics in her favor.
Yet once again Sanders let her off the hook. Rather than taking on her cynical attempt to evade the question or criticizing her weak proposal to regulate Wall Street (even O’Malley at least directly challenged it) he effectively provided an assist by turning the debate away from Clinton and towards campaign finance reform. He focused his condemnation on Wall Street abstractly and the banks in particular while refusing to concretely take on Wall Street´s candidate.
A Sandernista Revolution?
The second debate was sharper and contained more real exchanges than the first. Yet at every moment where a serious criticism could have been made from the left, Sanders held back. On foreign policy part of this is rooted in the pro-imperial consensus, yet whether at home or abroad he consistently refuses to take on and criticize Clinton.
His campaign undoubtedly started as a mere effort to push the debate – especially around domestic economic issues – to the left. The unprecedented surge of support which he has seen has made him into a real contender and the only alternative to Clinton.
His word choice and self-presentation seem to point towards him seeing his own campaign as one aiming to win. He is “more conservative” about regime change and “not as much a socialist as Eisenhower.” He says he is better able to reach across political divides and build consensus around gun control. Asked about his greatest challenge, he mentioned a time when he had to compromise and work with Republicans on legislation. These are the kind of statements and tactics one would expect from someone attempting to transform themselves into an acceptable and “serious” candidate.
Yet he’s playing a rigged game, following rules written to ensure his loss. His strategy, his campaign, his politics all start from the defense of the indefensible – the record of the Democratic Party. Having accepted in advance the logic of supporting the lesser evil, he can never effectively criticize it for fear of empowering the right. Unwilling to draw a real distinction between himself and Clinton, unwilling to challenge her in a way which could win him support, and unwilling to maintain even the threat of an independent campaign – his only hope is for something to miraculously sink Clinton’s candidacy.
The Left however needs to be careful – following Sanders either to defeat or unlikely victory would be disastrous for the kind of politics we need to build. His own reference to the Republican Eisenhower shows that his economic policies recall the gains and privileges of a now dead epoch of US capitalist development. His foreign policy maintains the fundamentals of U.S. intervention and hegemony while criticizing its excesses and hubris. Much like his relationship to Clinton and the Democrats, his relationship to Capital and Empire is such that in the final analysis he will subordinate the struggle for partial reforms to the preservation of the whole.
For a working class which the world over is confronting a merciless capitalist offensive against a backdrop of economic stagnation, this is a dead end. Only a relentless internationalism and uncompromising commitment to class struggle can prepare us for the difficult tasks ahead.