The Democratic presidential debate in Milwaukee, was not, as our own Jud Lounsbury predicted, all about trade. Bernie Sanders, who has made a point of distinguishing himself from Hillary Clinton with his more progressive record on global trade deals, missed an opportunity to talk about the collapse of manufacturing and the outsourcing of American jobs right in the downtown area where the debate took place.
Before the debate even started, protesters carry Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter signs burst into the press room, prompting reporters to scramble away from the Facebook-sponsored free buffet and point their mics and cameras at the young, boisterous crowd chanting: “We work! We sweat! We deserve a $15 check!”
Neither candidate mentioned the large protests, which continued outside the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee building as the debate began.
Hillary Clinton, in perhaps her strongest debate performance yet, did speak to Wisconsinintes, mentioning Scott Walker, union-busting, and Dontre Hamilton, a young African American man who was killed by police in Milwaukee. Closing with a final shot at Walker, she took her opportunity to connect directly with the local crowd.
Sanders, puzzlingly, did not say anything about Wisconsin or Scott Walker or the epic collapse of the black middle class as blue-collar jobs fled Milwaukee. An effort by the Madison teachers union to get Sanders to mention the fact that the debate was taking place exactly on the fifth anniversary of the historic protests against Walker’s union-busting Act 10 apparently failed to get through.
Especially on race, Hillary continued to speak more fluently than Sanders.
When asked directly about racism by moderator Gwen Ifill, Sanders talked about helping young, unemployed men who hang out on street corners. That prompted New York Times columnist Charles Blow to tweet “You think that only unemployed black people get shot? Get GONE . . .”
Ifill tried again to get a better answer from both candidates: “Let’s talk about white people,” she said. Hillary pivoted to decry conditions for struggling white workers in coal country.
“Neither candidate managed to identify racists as being a big part of U.S. race issues,” Progressive Education Fellow Sabrina Stevens pointed out on Twitter.
Sanders’s best moment came in response to Clinton’s awkward effort to claim, once again, that taking big contributions from Wall Street, or big pharmaceutical companies, or any other large financial interest, does not influence her vote. President Obama, she rightly pointed out, got more contributions from Wall Street than any candidate for President in history, yet he signed the Dodd-Frank bill regulating the banks.
“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” Sanders shot back. “People aren’t dumb. Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it. They want to throw money around. Why does the pharmaceutical industry make any contribution? Any connection to our people paying the highest amount of money for prescription drugs? Why does the fossil fuel industry pay huge amounts of money in contributions? Any connection to the fact that not one Republican candidate for president thinks and agrees with the scientific community that climate change is real?”
Hillary’s invocation of Henry Kissinger in the last debate—when she said she was “flattered” that he praised her for running a tight ship at the State Department—came back to bite her. Sanders attacked her for associating herself with the architect of Cold War realpolitik.
Then he paused to explain to his millennial base who Kissinger is, sounding like a gruff uncle catching up the kids on the adult conversation at the holiday dinner table: “Henry Kissinger was the guy who promoted the domino theory. . . that if Vietnam falls, China goes. . . yadda yadda. . . not my kind of guy.”
On foreign policy, Clinton dominated the discussion with a lot of specific details.
But her attacks on Walker with which she opened and closed the debate, were her best moments. She even managed to connect Sanders’s free college plan to Walker’s deep and unpopular cuts to the University of Wisconsin system budget. It was a ready-made applause line in the campus concert hall:
“Senator Sanders's plan really rests on making sure that governors, like Scott Walker, contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free,” she said. “I’m a little skeptical about your governor actually caring about enough higher education to make any kind of commitment like that.”
It was a deft connection. But it’s not clear that Clinton persuaded anyone.
Nina Turner, a Democratic state senator from Ohio, said big ideas like free college and universal health care were what made her decide to support Sanders: “For me that was personal, because I was a first generation college student, and my mom died when she was 22. I think about what it would have meant for her to have the opportunity to go to college, and all my siblings.”
“When my mother died, she didn’t have healthcare,” Turner added. “So Senator Sanders saying universal health care is a right and not a privilege—it melded with my lifestyle.”
If Sanders, in the debate, did not quite connect his vision to the day-to-day life in the rust belt cities of Ohio and Wisconsin—particularly for African Americans who have taken the brunt of bad trade deals, union decline, and a shrinking safety net—you could still hear the possibility of that connection from Turner and others.
Mandela Barnes, a Democratic state senator from Milwaukee, said he was pleased with the debate overall, and how the candidates talked about issues that matter to his district, including Wisconsin’s staggering rate of incarceration for African American men, and the police killing of Dontre Hamilton. “You wouldn’t have heard that in a presidential debate in the past,” adding, What didn’t get brought up was the jobless rate for African American men.”
That would have been a perfect issue for Sanders.
“I was disappointed by what I heard,” Wisconsin’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch, who watched the debate from the back of the press room, said of the debate overall. “It was all pretty out of touch with what average Americans are thinking.”
Kleefisch was particularly dismayed by all the talk about crime and greed on Wall Street.
“Every American is concerned about what has happened over the last decade on Wall Street,” Kleefisch said. “But if you spend all your time pointing out the fleck in the eye of the corporation that goes to another country to avoid a 35 percent tax rate, but you don’t notice the log in the eye of the politician who creates the policies that cause people to move jobs and corporate headquarters overseas, that does nothing.”
That is the fresh Republican talking point on trade, by the way: corporations are forced to outsource jobs because they are taxed too much.
It would have been good to hear the Democratic candidates take it on in the trade deal-ravaged city of Milwaukee.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.