Calm Clinton and Cool Sanders Prove Anti-Cockfight Debate Poise Is Possible

Unlike GOP cage fights with razor-taloned roosters, Hill and Bern hardly get personal

DURHAM, NH - FEBRUARY 04: Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) stand next to each other at the start of their MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate at the University of New Hampshire on February 4, 2016 in Durham, New Hampshire. This is the final debate for the Democratic candidates before the New Hampshire primaries.Ê (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at the start of their MSNBC Democratic Candidates Debate at the University of New Hampshire on February 4 in Durham, N.H. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (Photo: Joe Raedle for Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton could become America’s first female president and Bernie Sanders could be America’s first Jewish chief executive but neither gender nor ethnicity were discussed Thursday night when they debated in New Hampshire in preparation for Tuesday’s Democratic primary. Too petty, too personal.

Unlike Republicans, who fight like roosters with razors tied to their talons, Ms. Clinton and Mr. Sanders rarely get personal and come off as intelligent, rational high-roaders who pretty much agree on just about everything. And they were getting along oh-so-nicely Thursday until Ms. Clinton took offense.

After the Democratic-Socialist-Sort-of-Independent Senator from Vermont once again said that Wall Street money perverts politics, Ms. Clinton said she thought it was a veiled attack on her for accepting large speaking fees and campaign contributions from America’s moneyed elite.

With a hot populist streak running through both parties, them’s fightin’ words.

“By innuendo and insinuation,” Ms. Clinton said, Mr. Sanders has suggested that Ms. Clinton “had been bought.”

“And I just absolutely reject that, Senator,” Ms. Clinton said. “I really don’t think these attacks are worthy of you and enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.”

You felt as if you were in a living room with your four smartest friends on the Upper West Side.

By this time, the audience was booing, but it was hard to tell the target. It was probably Ms. Clinton, in that she was throwing a punch that seemed well-rehearsed and carefully crafted.

“It’s time to end the very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks,” Ms. Clinton concluded. “Let’s talk about the issues.”

Perhaps Mr. Sanders could have replied “But, Madame Secretary, you and your Wall Street money are a major issue.” But he let the moment pass. This exchange, late in the first half hour, knocked both candidates off their repetitious talking points and produced a real back-and-forth exchange.

Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, the moderators for MSNBC, wisely kept quiet and let the two candidates address each other, a departure from the planned format that made for a better conversation. You felt as if you were in a living room with your four smartest friends on the Upper West Side.

Being Democrats, they spoke of health care, Mr. Sanders advocating Medicare for all and Ms. Clinton pushing only for improvements in Obamacare. Without insulting him, she kept hinting Mr. Sanders’ ideas were far-fetched, and that he’s a bit far out and she was better-grounded in political reality from her time as first lady, as senator in New York and as Secretary of State.

Mr. Sanders parried some of this by saying his “are not radical ideas” to provide taxpayer funded public college education and universal health care. Other democracies do it, he said.

Dr. Carson’s voice makes you crazy if you concentrate too much on that soft delivery and those lunatic ideas.

Why not the U.S.? Jabbing at Ms. Clinton’s experience as a negative, Mr. Sanders damned her with faint praise. “She has almost the entire establishment behind her,” Mr. Sanders said.

Ms. Clinton spoke in a well-modulated tone of voice and smiled a lot. The debate format brings out her speaking best. This is important only in that some critics (mostly men) have found fault with her voice in campaign speeches as being shrill. Such words are often used by men against women and some of Ms. Clinton’s supporters sense sexism in the criticism.

This is logical but wrong. Ms. Clinton’s voice sounded carefully controlled and calm last fall when she was under attack for 11 hours from a hostile Republican-led congressional committee that carried on a kangaroo court against her over four Americans murdered in Benghazi, Libya.

She also sounds good in one-on-one interviews. There is no need to shout in either situation. But when speaking to a large crowd in a noisy atmosphere, Ms. Clinton often forgets that she doesn’t have to shout into a microphone right next to her face. Hold the mic a few inches out and remember to speak loudly but not to shout.

At least nobody spoke of Ms. Clinton the way former Republican Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi spoke of Sarah Palin last week to Don Lemon on CNN.

When the host said to watch a tape of Ms. Palin endorsing Donald Trump, Mr. Lott mumbled: “Do I have to?” explaining later that Ms. Palin speaks in a shriek and he disagrees with her. (Good thing Mr. Lott don’t got no accent).

Compare some of the other candidates’ voices. Jeb Bush is polished but bland. Mr. Rubio is a salesman. Mr. Christie sounds as if he is about to demand your lunch money. Mr. Trump sounds like a Broadway wise guy in a  revival of Guys and Dolls. Dr. Carson’s voice makes you crazy if you concentrate too much on that soft delivery and those lunatic ideas.

Ted Cruz’s voice penetrates head phones and ear wax and comes off shrill and barking and too dang twangy. Might we be sexist if we wonder what it would be like to look at that face and listen to that voice for four years? Let’s hear from the suffragettes out there.

Overall, the debate season has been much better than expected. Look for another knife fight Saturday night in the Republican debate, especially if Mr. Trump returns to the ring. He finished second in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday after skipping the Iowa debate.

Also in the gang of seven are Ohio Governor Kasich, former Florida Governor Bush, Florida Senator Rubio, Texas Senator Cruz, retired surgeon Carson and New Jersey Governor Christie. It starts on ABC at 8 p.m. with David Muir and Martha Raddatz the moderators.

Interesting, isn’t it, that both parties have scheduled Michigan debates the week before the Michigan primary in different cities. The Republicans go first, in Detroit, on March 3. The Democrats follow in Flint on March 6, two days before the election. No network has yet been announced.

By choosing Flint, the Democrats call attention to the fact that the Flint water system was poisoned by lead due to decisions made by the office of Republican Governor Rick Snyder. By choosing Detroit, the Republicans return to the city where they nominated Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Calm Clinton and Cool Sanders Prove Anti-Cockfight Debate Poise Is Possible