The Democrats engaged policy on a level that risked putting the audience to sleep after the Republicans had their audience yelling and hooting and rolling in the aisles.

Carlos Osorio/AP

The Democrats engaged policy on a level that risked putting the audience to sleep after the Republicans had their audience yelling and hooting and rolling in the aisles.

As Serious as Lead Poisoning: Hillary v. Bernie

The sixth Democratic debate was not a terribly edifying exercise, although it was a Socratic dialogue compared to the mud wallow from which the Republicans have spoken in their last two meetings, with the exceptions of Dr. Ben Carson (now withdrawn) and Gov. John Kasich.

The seventh meeting last night of the last two standing, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, held some promise of getting beyond the bickering that has become boring to those paying attention.

The difference was the location, a location that shamed the Republicans. Marco Rubio asserted in the last debate that the poisoning of children is not a partisan issue. Sen. Rubio is generally correct, but in this case—lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, directly caused by poor government choices—there might be a gap between those who have solutions and those who do not.

Solutions are required both to fix it and to see it does not happen again. The decisions that unleashed the poison on Flint’s children were taken not by elected officials but by an “emergency manager,” a peculiar office in Michigan law that allows democracy to be suspended in case of bankruptcy. Was it a bad decision by a bad manager or is the deviation from democracy the cause of bad decisions?

That’s a debate to have, but the governor appointed the emergency manager in Flint, so he is responsible either way.

The Democratic candidates have reacted to the Flint tragedy in ways that reflect their differences. Clinton is farther off in the policy weeds. She radiates practicality.

She first raised the Flint poisoning in the presidential race and she sent people to Flint to investigate and work on solutions. It’s a Hillary Clinton advantage. She’s been getting right down in it.

Bernie Sanders has called for Governor Rick Snyder to resign, which is at once more just, more radical, and less likely.

He made the call again last night in answer to the first question, and Clinton’s response was easy and probably obvious: “Amen to that.” There is a recall effort underway. Most observers agree it will be an uphill fight in spite of Snyder’s general unpopularity.

The next question came from one of many individuals victimized by the poisoned water fiasco. How can they repair trust in government?

Clinton said she would work with local politicians, which sounds like an implied rebuke to the emergency manager law, but it also assumed that the questioner trusts local pols more than national ones.

Sanders said the federal government should act if local government fails. He pointed out that the people in Flint are paying more for poisoned water than Vermonters pay for safe water and seemed to be suggesting an opening for a local organizer. Bottom line, he said, is this country needs to fix crumbling infrastructure.

Moderator Anderson Cooper challenged Sanders. Don’t his solutions call for more big government?

Of course they do.

Sanders somewhat sarcastically pointed out what ought to be obvious. The choices are big government or big business. Individuals can’t fix it. Should we trust the corporations that left Flint broke? Should we let Wall Street money guys take over, since they’ve proven to be so public-spirited?

Both candidates agreed that anybody who knew and did not act in the Environmental Protection Agency ought to be fired. The GOP candidates want to abolish the EPA, which I suppose would fire anybody who knew and did not act.

When pushed about criminal liability for what happened in Flint, both candidates refused to play judge and jury without investigation.

The gun issue came up and had to have been thoroughly confusing for anybody not a lawyer. Clinton got to riding a demagogue horse, calling the AR-15 “automatic” and denouncing the maker.

Sanders was able to defend his vote for immunity from suit for the gun industry by reference to a straw man, because Clinton failed to clarify her position in understandable fashion.

Continuing into criminal justice issues, the candidates agreed that racial profiling and private prisons are bad, but one clear difference came out. Sanders opposes the death penalty and Clinton does not. They did not get into reasons.

Sanders once more threw up his ridiculous proposal that every death in police custody or in the process of apprehension should be investigated by the Justice Department. The last we have from the Bureau of Justice Statistics was 4,446 deaths in 2013—and that was only jails and prisons. Should the DOJ be tasked to investigate them all, a DOJ investigation would cease to be the fearsome (to local authorities) prospect it is today.

They had a spirited disagreement about trade agreements but once more probably confused voters.

Sanders said that Clinton supported NAFTA.

Clinton said that Sanders voted against the auto bailout, which was a big deal in Michigan. In fact, Sanders spoke in favor of the auto bailout, but he voted against releasing the tranche of Troubled Asset Relief Program fund that contained the funds for the bail out because he was opposed to TARP entirely. I always thought TARP should have been called BBBB—Billionaire Bad Bet Bailout.

Leaving aside the charges and countercharges about the history, the candidates did disagree going forward in that Clinton is for the Export-Import Bank and Sanders is against it. After the standard attempt to paint the Export-Import Bank as being for small business fell flat on the fact that Boeing is the biggest benefactor, Clinton did not back off. She pointed out that Boeing’s primary competitor, Airbus, gets similar aid from the Eurozone and the U.S. should do no less for Boeing, even if it technically is corporate welfare.

Cooper noted that the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have endorsed Clinton and asked her position on the charge that the teachers’ unions make it harder to fire bad teachers. She talked around the issue, and I would rather have heard the truth: of course they do. Due process is always harder than arbitrariness.

Question to both candidates: Do you support fracking?

Clinton: Not if the locals object. Not if there are methane leaks. Not without knowing the content of fracking fluids.

Sanders: “No.”

Cooper pushed Sanders, “Are the Democratic governors wrong who say that fracking can be done safely?”

Sanders: “Yes.”

While he was a man of few words, Sanders was the only person in the fracking conversation to raise the issue of water waste and pollution.

Both candidates opposed the corporate money unleashed by the Citizens United case and wanted to see the case reversed. Sanders added that in the meantime he would not take the corporate cash. Clinton added that if the courts did not act, she would support a constitutional amendment.

Count me skeptical of Clinton’s position, not just because she is taking the money, but because the same Democratic National Committee that tilted the debate schedule to benefit Clinton also manipulated the rules to keep Lawrence Lessig out of the debates and Lessig was running on one issue: the campaign finance crisis touched off by Citizens United.

If forced to call the winner, I think Clinton’s mastery of policy detail carried the day. I have not mentioned every issue touched but rather tried to point out where differences emerged. Both candidates have significant support in Indian country and we are used to our issues not being debated. This debate was no exception.

From my peculiar position of watching all of every debate by both parties, what struck me after the last two GOP debates was that both candidates threw sharp elbows but neither called the other a liar, let alone criticized the appearance or mannerisms of the other. And there was nothing to compare with the, ahem, lengthy discussion of Donald Trump’s penis.

Once more, the Democrats engaged policy on a level that risked putting the audience to sleep after the Republicans had their audience yelling and hooting and rolling in the aisles. If the level of discourse on the Republican side is related to the record turnouts they have been getting, then the Democrats—who have had mediocre turnouts—are going to pay a price for being too serious.

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