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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Thursday’s Democratic Debate Was a Shameless Display of Suck-Ups

Hillary drew out her Obama praise, Bernie wagged his finger, and the discourse was as predictable as ever.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at Thursday’s debate  Photo: AP Photo/Tom Lynn

And the award for the most shameless suck-up of them all goes to… Hillary Clinton, by a mile.

While watching Thursday’s Democratic debate, I almost wished that Donald Trump had decided that, oops, he’s really a Democrat, just because this debate—the sixth of the season for Democrats—was so predictable.

The PBS NewsHour two-hour production, in partnership with Facebook, and broadcast from the Helen Bader Concert Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, was moderated by Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, with their eyes fixed on the next contests—the Nevada caucus on February 20 and the South Carolina primary on February 27—mostly ignored the moderators to have at each other directly.

As the candidates took their podiums, it was clear that the audience was packed with Hillary supporters. Bernie managed occasionally to spark some applause, but, relative to Hillary’s, it was infrequent, muted, and mixed with jeers. (There’s an interesting story to be written about how these audiences are assembled, and whatever happened to no-applause debates in which audience members are ordered, on penalty of ejection, to remain silent.)

First, some purely cosmetic observations: I was in grade school in 1960 when John Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated at the old CBS studio on McClurg Court. The consensus emerged that those who listened to the debate on the radio gave the win to Nixon, but those who watched on TV gave it to Kennedy. The latter, after all, had good hair, good teeth, and a tanned, handsome face. Nixon had none of the above, and his face was rendered sinister by a five o’clock shadow overlaid by nervous sweat.

So with that bit of history in mind, excuse me for noting that Hillary took the good-looks prize last night. No contest. She wore black, well-tailored pants—dresses and skirts are not in her campaign wardrobe, and neither are those awful pastel pantsuits and matching oversized pearls of 2008—and a striking, high-collared yellow silk top with three-quarter sleeves that lengthened her arms. Her hair was, I’m sure, professionally done in the hours before curtain time; the new, more intensely blonde streaks coordinated with her outfit. Her makeup was heavy and flawless and certainly applied by a professional who knew how to tailor it to the harsh lights of television.

Hillary looked good not only for a woman of 68, but for a woman of any age. Bernie, 74, looked 84: The bags under his eyes were as droopy as his ill-fitting suit. His hair was dry and unkempt; if he wore makeup, it wasn’t apparent. His slouch seemed more pronounced—perhaps because he must be dog-tired. (Bernie kept up his campaign schedule after the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday; Hillary took a couple days off for debate and appearance prep.)

When Hillary was talking, the camera took in Bernie as well, often showing him scowling as though he had sucked on a lemon topped with red pepper flakes. He awkwardly waved a finger in the air to get the attention of the moderators. He coughed and his face turned increasingly red as the debate progressed. He drank a lot of water. Hillary took fewer water breaks and drank hers through a straw, presumably to avoid disturbing her red lipstick.

Back to the suck-up angle. Hillary was shameless in tightly wrapping her arms and answers around President Obama, certainly with the all-important South Carolina primary in mind (more than half of that state’s Democratic primary voters are African American). When Woodruff suggested that race relations haven’t improved during Obama’s tenure, Hillary disagreed. He has set a great example, she said, and she also managed to throw a kiss at Michelle. Bernie agreed with Woodruff’s premise, pointing to the dearth of jobs and hope in minority communities. In what had to be a rehearsed talking point, Hillary gave a shout-out to South Carolina congressman James Clyburn, an influential African American who has yet to issue an endorsement.

On the subject of immigration reform, Hillary defended Obama and pounced on Bernie for voting against Ted Kennedy’s 2007 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act, which eventually died. It was almost comic to watch their back-and-forth, each trying to outdo the other in their adoration of the late senator from Massachusetts. For a moment I feared I was about to witness a replay of the 1988 VP debate when Lloyd Bentsen obliterated Dan Quayle: “I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

When a Facebook questioner asked Bernie to name a domestic leader and a foreign leader who most inspired him, he named FDR and Winston Churchill. When it was Hillary’s turn, she agreed on FDR, and I was waiting—just waiting—for her to disregard the terms of the question, and name Barack Obama as her second. Instead, she picked Nelson Mandela.

In his closing statement, Bernie, who claimed a friendship with Obama—and noted that, as a U.S. senator, Obama traveled to Vermont to campaign for him—pointed out: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

No questions on Hillary’s email, alleged conflicts of interest between the Clinton Foundation and her work as Secretary of State, her speaking fees, or Bernie’s votes on gun control.

And speaking of speaking fees, someone from the Sanders campaign should have texted Bernie during a break—is that legal?—that the yellow top Hillary was wearing was the same one she wore when she was photographed greeting Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and chief executive of Goldman Sachs, in New York in 2014. She took in $675,000 in speaking fees in one year from the investment banking firm.

During the debate’s second half, when Hillary outshined Bernie on the discussion of foreign affairs—describing in detail her work in the world’s trouble spots—Bernie’s cough gained momentum and volume. At first I wondered if his hacking was designed to distract from Hillary’s articulate, detailed, confident recitation of nations, leaders, and factions. My guess is probably not: Nonstop campaigning has left the septuagenarian exhausted and suffering from one of those endless winter colds.

 

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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