Pragmatic Hillary Tops Thundering Bernie

Bernie Sanders’s moral thunder sounds impressive on the stump or in a debate, but while Hillary may be outmatched oratorically, her solutions do look more like, well, solutions.

03.07.16 7:50 PM ET

It was never clearer than at Sunday night’s debate, especially during the opening discussion about the Flint water crisis, what the real difference is between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

There are two kinds of political people in this world. First, there are those who see injustice and who hunger chiefly to see the malefactors punished. And second, there are those who hunger mainly to see the injustice corrected. Now obviously, those in the former group want to see the wrongs righted, and those in the latter group wish to see the perpetrators brought to heel. But when you strip away all the layers of the onion and get to the core emotional motivation, most people are first concerned with one or the other.

Sanders is a punish-the-malefactors type, and Clinton is a fix-the-problem type. This smacked me in the forehead when they were discussing the fate of Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Sanders thundered, as he always does, that Snyder should leave office: “One of the points that I have made is that I believe the governor of this state should understand that his dereliction of duty was irresponsible. He should resign.” Huge applause. Then in his next breath, he expanded the argument out to income inequality, the “proliferation of millionaires and billionaires,” and so on.

Then came Clinton’s turn. She had not joined in the call for Snyder’s scalp, but now she did. But look how quickly she pivoted away: “I agree, the governor should resign, or be recalled … [And I] support the efforts of citizens attempting to achieve that. But that is not enough. We have to focus on what must be done to help the people of Flint.”

So there you have it. The difference was so stark. And it explains a lot.

Sanders doesn’t care much about solutions. His prescriptions for Flint, based on his public pronouncements on the matter, more or less amount to: The governor must resign, and then, well, something will happen. I’m not sure what, exactly, given that Snyder would be replaced by another pretty conservative Republican, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. When Sanders visited Flint in late February, a Politico reporter quoted lots of Sanders moral thunder but then observed, “At one point, when an audience member asked him what he would do as president to help, he demurred and asked what the locals wanted from him.”

What Sanders does is that he stakes out moral positions that are laudable abstract goals. But I’ve been shocked sometimes by how little thought he seems to have given to how to get to these goals. Take the Medicare-for-all thing. Many months ago he started talking about Medicare-for-all. At one point reporters started asking, so, where’s the plan? Yeah, yeah; it’ll come, it’ll come. So some weeks passed. And then he released his plan.

Well, it didn’t get very good reviews. Ezra Klein, Vox: “It is, to be generous, a gesture toward a future plan.” James Surowiecki, The New Yorker: “… the accompanying document devoted to explaining how the plan would work, and what it would mean for patients and providers, consists of just a couple of pages.”

I read the thing when he released it. I thought it was reasonably detailed on the how-he’d-pay-for-it part. But on the question of how health care would be delivered—which is to say, on the whole point of the thing!—it was a joke. And I thought: Now here’s this guy. He’s been in Congress for a quarter-century. Every day during all those years, he’s supported Medicare-for-all. In all that time, couldn’t he have given some thought to some of the specific and complicated questions of health-care delivery? And maybe he did. But there’s no evidence in this plan that he did. That was a tell.

Now, to Clinton. What she offers are solutions. She started talking about Flint long before Sanders did, and instead of focusing on Snyder, she put forward solutions and proposals. What she isn’t good at is moral thunder. It’s not her nature, never has been. At Wellesley, she supported permitting antiwar activities on campus and rescinding the skirt rule; but her involvement was less about marching than about sitting down with administrators to work out the details. Then she became a cautious centrist, which probably suited her temperamentally since nobody expects a cautious centrist to do moral thunder. But now she’s trying to be a populist, and she doesn’t have the gene.

I think she just ought to own it. Sunday night she should have said, “Yeah, whatever, Snyder should go. And you know what? The day he moves out of the governor’s mansion, it’s not like the water of Flint is going to magically get better.” And so on in that vein. Because to get into a game who can out-thunder whom is get into a game she can’t win. In this respect, the media abet Sanders, because news tends to be defined as that one grabby new thing. So on NPR Monday morning—yes, even “smart” NPR—the reports on the debate led with the fact that Clinton joined Sanders’s call for Snyder’s head, which is “news.” I get it, but it is hardly the most meaningful thing that happened and is irrelevant to the health of the people of Flint.

The perfect candidate would be a cross between the two. But human beings aren’t usually good at two opposing things. I can see why people are drawn to the moral-thunder candidate, but they in turn ought to be able to see why some other people—people who are shaping up to be the majority, as it happens—are drawn to the let’s-figure-this-out candidate. It’s less about ideology and more about temperament than most people would prefer to admit. And one thing’s for sure: Outrage certainly isn’t morally superior to rolling up one’s sleeves. If anything, the opposite is true.