Why you should care

Because beneath the civility and labels, there’s a real decision to make.

The night began cordially enough. Finally onstage without an awkward third wheel (sorry, O’Malley), Hillary Clinton praised Sen. Bernie Sanders for sharing “some very big progressive goals.” Sanders, meanwhile, served up compliments by noting how he’s known Clinton for 25 years and respects her — “very much.”

And then came the but

Just days before the country’s first primary, in New Hampshire, the Democratic front-runners tossed barbs at each other that highlighted their differences on everything from healthcare and education to international relations. Veins bulged, tensions boiled — heightened, of course, by MSNBC’s dramatic split screen — as the former secretary of state demanded that her socialist rival “end the very artful smear” of alleging that her views could be bought through speaking fees and donations. The attacks weren’t too personal, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz told OZY. But, she added: “They certainly got more pointed in their differences.”

In one of their feistier moments, the discussion centered around defining who, really, is progressive. “A progressive,” said Clinton, “is someone who makes progress,” and she cited her experience in getting liberal legislation passed. Was it enough to inoculate her against allegations of being a “moderate?” Sanders, for his part, argued that his plans — making college tuition-free and healthcare truly universal — “are not radical ideas.”

And ultimately, the debate suggested labels don’t matter so much as this question: Do voters want a Democrat who will work within the system or one who’s willing to defy it? One who accepts donations from big banks or one who says Wall Street’s business is “fraud”? NB: Sanders may get a boost in what will likely turn out to be a post-Benghazi, post-email-probe storyline that’ll shadow Clinton into South Carolina: whether she’ll actually release the transcripts from her paid speeches. Her response? “I will look into it.”

Still, the pair ended much like they began — on a conciliatory note, with both pledging to work together no matter who nabs the nomination. “Sometimes in these campaigns,” Sanders said, “things get a little out of hand.”

Comment

OZY2016

The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.