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Commentary

The Democrats debate like grown ups ahead of Michigan primary

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Whatever you think of Hillary Clinton, she said something worth considering during last night’s debate in Flint. “We have our differences,” she said of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But she added, simply, “Compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”

That wasn’t just a cheap partisan shot. For two hours last night, Clinton and Sanders argued about policy matters. Sure, there was posturing and one-upmanship on both sides. But they showed personal respect for each other.

They didn’t make smutty illusions about their private parts, call each other names like Little Marco, or, afterwards, insult anyone for menstruating or going to the bathroom. Instead, they argued about how they would make America better.

This was, I thought, the best of all the presidential debates this year, and I think Sanders was more impressive, something borne out by several non-scientific surveys. Seventy-nine percent of those in one Detroit newspaper poll said he won; ninety-five percent of the readers of the more conservative Detroit News gave it to Sanders.

The odds against his winning the nomination are long, though he did easily win three out of four states with primaries or caucuses this weekend.

Perhaps the best thing the Vermont senator has going for him are the mainstream media “experts,” who say every day that he has no chance. The fact that many of the same commentators spent months telling us that Donald Trump’s candidacy would be over before Christmas and that Jeb Bush’s nomination was a foregone conclusion doesn’t seem to bother them at all.

But what is clear is that Sanders’ candidacy has exposed that Clinton has a real problem. She may indeed be the best prepared candidate in history. She began this campaign with near-total name recognition. Few Americans ever heard of her opponent before last year.

He is the oldest serious presidential candidate in history, and comes across like a cranky old man who really wants to tell you to get off his lawn. He also openly calls himself a Democratic Socialist, which according to the playbook ought to be the kiss of death.

Yet he is winning millions of votes. Among young people, his support is overwhelming. This may be because he is talking about real issues nobody else will mention. The only other candidate I’ve ever seen do that was Bobby Kennedy, in the spring of 1968.

The election returns show something else Clinton has to find disturbing, and which few are talking about. In every state outside the south, Sanders is winning with white voters. Clinton’s lead is based primarily on huge support from the African-American community, who are nearly all Democrats and are disproportionally influential in their nomination process. It will be interesting to see if that repeats itself in Michigan.

I’m certainly not saying black votes are any less valuable. Sanders himself has strong civil rights credentials. But any Democrat will win black support in November. No Democrat has gotten a majority of white voters since 1964.

Bernie Sanders does come across as angry at injustice. But whoever Democrats nominate is likely to face an opponent whose campaign has been based on stirring up ancient hatreds and fears. What I can’t understand is why anyone in Michigan would tomorrow fail to vote.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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