Those of us who watched the first Democratic presidential debate Tuesday were treated to a litany of perplexing answers; from Chaffee’s assertion that he didn’t know what he was doing when he voted to repeal the Glass-Steagall act, to Webb’s awkwardly macabre answer to “which enemy you’re most proud of making.”
The moment that seems to have set the media ablaze, however, is neither of those. It was the moment when Bernie Sanders came to the aid of Hillary Clinton by stating that the nation has had “enough with your damn emails.” This came after the moderator, Anderson Cooper, repeatedly pressed Clinton about the scandal, in which she reportedly sent work-related emails from her private server during her time as secretary of state. The Boston Globe even went so far as to run an article titled, “Hillary Clinton wins [the debate], with an assist from Bernie Sanders.”
This article is not an isolated example. It is representative of the general consensus among major news agencies immediately after the debate: that Clinton had won, with the help of Sanders.
This view is wrong. Not only do most post-debate polls and focus groups have Sanders as the clear victor (if victory is something that can be attained in a debate), but the positive benefits of Sanders’ remarks for Clinton are negligible compared to the benefits that Sanders himself will reap. Thus, to call them an “assist” to Clinton is both disingenuous and incorrect.
Not only did Sanders avoid bogging himself-and the debate-down in the quagmire of the email scandal, but he set himself up perfectly for future contingencies. If the federal investigation into Clinton’s emails turns up nothing consequential, Sanders looks ahead of the curve in denouncing it. If investigation reveals more serious breaches of protocol, then Sanders is in a perfect place to capitalize on that. For, while he gave her the benefit of the doubt this time, the future findings might make him reassess his position on the matter, due to the future gravity of the situation.
Sanders’ denouncement of the time spent discussing Clinton’s email scandal was tactical genius. By doing so, he set himself up with a win-win situation: during the debate, he came off as dignified, resisting the urge to slander Clinton over the scandal. Pettiness has spelled doom for many a political campaign, and is a pitfall that Sanders deftly avoided.
Sanders also stole Clinton’s spotlight. Thanks in large part to the extravagant media coverage of this moment, whenever the scandal is brought up in the foreseeable future, it will be accompanied by the mention of Sanders. Thus, Sanders co-opted a negative aspect of the Clinton campaign and, in doing so, made it a bright spot in his.
The standing ovation that accompanied Sanders’ remarks was not directed towards Clinton-it was a validation of Sanders’ belief that America has had enough of petty politics. Sanders correctly discerned that the key to reinvigorating the politically jaded American people is not to lambast Clinton, but to actually address the pressing issues. Issues such as climate change (which Sanders called the biggest foreign policy threat to the United States), income inequality (the focus of many of his speeches, including his closing remarks), and the regulation of Wall Street (a subject on which Sanders delivered one of the most pithy remarks of the debate).
Sanders made clear to the American people a trend that political scientists have known for decades; when people turn out to vote, Democrats win. Sanders’ appeal for voter turnout centered not on mudslinging politics, but on the real issues. Yet somehow, the raucous applause after his condemnation of the email scandal was interpreted to by pundits to be in favor of Clinton.
If the biggest obstacle to Sanders’ political revolution (a revolution that would theoretically come with Sanders at the helm) is awareness, then this moment, and the debate as a whole, can only be seen as a victory for him.