NYT's Hard-Hitting Democratic Debate Preview: 'He's So Confident. She's So Prepared.'

October 13th, 2015 10:59 AM

In preparation for tonight's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, the New York Times on Sunday offered side-by-side profiles by Jason Horowitz and Amy Chozick documenting the brilliance and tenacity of the top two Democratic candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. This goop was offered as a front-page tease: "He's So Confident. She's So Prepared. Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton will use debate skills on Tuesday that have been honed over decades."

That's not exactly how Republicans debates get covered in the Times.

Political reporter Horowitz, last seen giving Scott Walker a gleeful rhetorical middle finger upon his departure from the race, was positively reverent in describing socialist Sanders in "With Palpable Sense of Conviction, Sanders Presses Economic Message." So how will Sanders of the "rhetorical polish and unwavering message discipline" fare against such "deft, accomplished debaters" as Hillary Clinton?

The answer is probably just fine.

A review of Mr. Sanders’s campaign debates -- from his early days as a no-shot radical through his tenures as a crafty, independent small-city mayor, a congressman and then a junior senator from Vermont -- shows that his economic inequality message has remained strikingly unchanged. And it reveals a compelling, highly confident debating style in which Mr. Sanders wields his accomplishments and command of policy, but mostly a palpable sense of conviction and outrage, to set him apart on stages where allotted speaking times and parsed positions are the norm.

He has also improved over the decades. Mr. Sanders has learned to suppress his exasperated expressions and eye rolls, speak in sound bites and use humor to make his arguments more digestible. He has an unstilted conversational style, packed with matter-of-fact questions asked and then answered. (“Is that a woman’s issue? I think it is.”) He will jab at an opponent’s weaknesses, dodge when necessary and, perhaps most remarkably, given his cantankerous nature, compliment his questioners.

Even "criticisms" were rapidly neutralized.

His consistency could open a line of attack for Mrs. Clinton, who is considering contrasting Mr. Sanders’s decades-old diagnoses of America’s political ills with her own promises to get things done.

Still, that, too, is a criticism Mr. Sanders has heard before.

Sanders has been far left throughout his career, supporting the Soviet-backed Sandinistas of Nicaragua during the Cold War, but the closet Horowitz got to labeling present-day Sanders (unlike his "no-shot radical" beginnings) was a suggestion that Sanders actually isn't all that "left-leaning" in a state like Vermont.

Running for governor again in 1986, Mr. Sanders participated in a women’s rights forum where he was accused of spoiling the election for the Democratic governor. He responded by criticizing both parties and their “bipartisan support to destroy the people of Nicaragua.”

Mr. Sanders has not lost an election since.

Chozick, continuing her Hillary beat, wrote a variation of an old theme of Hillary the earnest grind with a "genuine passion for policy": "From School Elections to Federal Races, Clinton Has Relied on Fierce Preparation."

When Hillary Rodham’s high school government teacher in Park Ridge, Ill., insisted she play the role of Lyndon B. Johnson in a mock debate of the 1964 presidential election, she protested.

Ms. Rodham, one of the school’s standout debaters, was a proud Barry Goldwater supporter (she wore a hat with an “AuH2O” logo) and an active member of the Young Republicans. But the teacher, Jerry Baker, was intent on challenging her to argue the other side.

Always a dutiful student, she agreed, settling into the library to pore for hours over Johnson’s positions on civil rights, foreign policy and health care. She prepared with such ardor and delivered such a compelling case that she even convinced herself. By the time Ms. Rodham graduated from college, she was a Democrat.


Mrs. Clinton does not possess the retail political skills of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, nor can she easily rouse a crowd with a lyrical speech like President Obama. But on the debate stage, she displays an unusual talent and focus, and appears at ease and comfortably herself.

The first Democratic primary debate Tuesday on CNN will provide Mrs. Clinton with an opportunity to present her policies to voters -- policies that have been largely overshadowed in the news media by developments over her use of private email at the State Department and by the rise of her insurgent opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

But more important, the debate -- perhaps more than any late-night appearances or social media gambit -- will provide Mrs. Clinton with the largest platform yet to make a connection with voters and show off her genuine passion for policy.


Mrs. Clinton nods assiduously when fielding moderators’ questions and has a knack for reciting statistics and for pivoting smoothly to intricate policy issues whenever the conversation turns personal. But there are times when she can hardly veil her sarcasm and disdain. (“Maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow,” she said during a debate in 2008, referring to a “Saturday Night Live” skit in which debate moderators fawned over Mr. Obama.)

Chozick boosted Hillary Clinton's naive defense of her philandering husband Bill as being among "her biggest victories."

But her biggest victories have come in those fleeting and poignant moments when she allows herself to be vulnerable. In her 2000 Senate race, the moderator, Tim Russert, asked Mrs. Clinton how voters could trust her after she had sworn in a TV interview that her husband had not had an “adulterous liaison” in the White House.

Her eyes welled up, and her lips tightened. Mrs. Clinton replied, “I didn’t mislead anyone. I didn’t know the truth, and there’s a great deal of pain associated with that.” (Later in the debate, her opponent, Rick Lazio, approached her lectern and unsuccessfully insisted she sign a pledge against soft money -- a move that turned off female viewers.)

Chozick does her best to humanize chilly Hillary:

After she finished third in the Iowa caucus in 2008, she brought Chelsea Clinton into a preparation session, relying on her daughter’s advice and instincts as they both nursed hot tea. The move irked some strategists but proved to be just what the candidate needed.

In the next debate, Mrs. Clinton had arguably her best moment of the 2008 primary debates. When a moderator asked her about her likability problem, she replied, “Well, that hurts my feelings,” to which Mr. Obama quipped, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” She went on to win the New Hampshire primary.

If Mrs. Clinton’s debate skills can be traced back to her formative years, so can her reliance on politically safe platitudes and her lawyerlike manner.