The important thing to understand about the Democratic Party’s primary debates is that they are no longer about convincing anybody.
The Democratic Party is down to two candidates—Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton—and anyone who plans to vote in the remaining Democratic primaries already knows which of these candidates he or she is going to vote for. The goal at this point in the campaign is to encourage the base to turn out and remind donors there’s a 50-50 chance they’re backing a winner. Did either candidate accomplish that goal Wednesday night during the Univision News-Washington Post debate?
Here’s what we learned:
1. Neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders is a monster.
Deporting children is probably one of the most gut-wrenching and complicated elements of our current immigration policy, and moderator Jorge Ramos went straight for the heart of the issue Wednesday night. Ramos asked whether the candidates would pledge not to deport children who have come into the United States.
Clinton, who ran a commercial during the Nevada primaries highlighting her desire to keep children of undocumented immigrants from being deported, was fairly clear in her answer. Both candidates said that as president, they would not deport children as a policy. However, the details of “not deporting children” were a little muddy. Clinton hedged on whether undocumented children had committed crimes, as well as on their asylum status, but Sanders made the pledge without any distinctions.
The likelihood, however, that no children, regardless of what nation they come from, or whether brought here illegally by their parents or seeking refugee status, will ever be deported seems low unless both candidates radically change current laws.
This is an important issue among Caribbean and Hispanic Democrats voting in next week’s Florida primary, and both candidates gave the answers needed to keep their bases intact.
2. Hillary Clinton is still being treated like a front-runner.
Clinton’s emails as secretary of state and the deaths of U.S. foreign service workers in Benghazi, Libya, are a Rorschach test for most voters. If you’re a Republican, they are signs that Clinton is a liar and unfit for the presidency. If you are independent, they are just more in a long line of issues that show Clinton may not be trustworthy. If you are a Democrat, you most likely don’t care.
Clinton was asked repeatedly about her emails during the debate, and at one point she was asked if she would drop out of the race if she were convicted of some kind of wrongdoing. Further, the audience (which was pretty loud all night) actually began to boo when the line of debate questions moved to Benghazi.
There isn’t much of a reason to ask questions like these during a Democratic debate because the closed-primary voters don’t care. These are general-election questions. These are questions Clinton would have to answer in a debate against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz to persuade swing voters that she wasn’t completely untrustworthy. In other words, Clinton was still deemed by the moderators to be the likely nominee. Sanders, who has generally refused to get involved in that line of questioning, continued his strategy of constructive nonengagement when it came up Wednesday night.
3. Who is a natural politician?
Apparently Bernie Sanders, Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama; but not Hillary Clinton. In an admission that was both refreshingly candid and intentionally vague, Hillary Clinton said that the reason only 37 percent of Americans find her “honest and trustworthy” is that she’s not a “natural politician.” Clinton essentially said: People don’t trust me because I don’t know how to suck up and lie like real politicians do. Which begs the question: Who is a “natural politician”?
There are plenty of politicians in American history who were considered “naturals” at the job and still weren’t trustworthy in the eyes of the American people. Mitt Romney, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon come to mind. Sanders, with his comb-over, brusque speech and rumpled clothes, probably isn’t a “natural politician,” either, but Americans certainly trust him more than they do Hillary Clinton. At some point, Clinton is just going to have to accept her “untrustworthy” status and move on, because trying to blame it on her particular political style just doesn’t pass the smell test.
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Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.