Just Answer the Question: Why Hillary Wouldn’t Make a Very Good Witness

When a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would do, Clinton is often tempted to dance around the question. It’s a bad habit when your biggest problem is trustworthiness.

03.10.16 7:46 AM ET

It has invariably been said after these Democratic debates, even back when they included Martin O’Malley, that the main thing was how much better and more nutritious they were than those Republican testosterone-fests; how lucky Democratic voters were to be able to choose from among (or now between, to you strict grammarians out there) these candidates.

Well, that’s certainly true, especially the way the Republican debates have devolved into events to which the phrase testosterone-fest can begin to do no justice. And yet, Wednesday night in Miami, both Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s shortcomings were on full display. Or maybe I’ve just seen too many of these things.

They were both good overall. There was no particular decisive needle-moving moment. Sanders scored on his favored Wall Street issues and on health care as a right, while Clinton probably out-pointed him on the Latino-interest issues raised tonight, chiefly immigration. It’s nearly impossible now for people like me to tell which moment or moments regular people who are hearing this for the first time took away from it. Sanders had the stronger closing peroration and got the bigger end-of-night applause, but that may also have been because his supporters are younger and louder.

But about those shortcomings. Clinton has trouble answering a question directly. My father was a trial lawyer. He’d ask me a question sometimes. Did I cut the lawn. “Well,” I’d say, “It rained a little, and then Greg stopped by, and then Doug called...” Would you please just say yes or no, he’d ask, and then get to the details? Then he’d explain to me how the most credible witnesses on the stand were always those who started by saying simply yes or no.

Well, Clinton wouldn’t be a very good witness (a pretty good metaphor for her whole biggest problem of trustworthiness, now that I think about it). Twice she was asked questions that cried out for a simple yes or no up front. Did she lie to the families of people who died in Benghazi? She started in: “You know, I feel tremendous sympathy...” No! Just say “no!” Then she was asked about the specific economic needs of Latinos. She danced around it. The moderator tried again. But Secretary Clinton, do you understand the specific needs of Latinos? “Well, I certainly understand what all Americans need...” No! Just say “yes”!

In the end, she salvaged the Benghazi exchange, by the way. The question, from Jorge Ramos (perhaps trying to prove how tough he could be on her because, as he was compelled to note, his daughter works on her campaign), was met with a lingering chorus of boos. And though it took Clinton a while, she finally got around to knocking it out of the park. And she pretty much successfully swatted away the “will you be indicted?” question. I don’t even think about it, she said, and no Democrat or American should either.

But on the Latino-economics question, she did a full punt. I was really surprised that Ms. Wonk didn’t have the apposite wonkery ready at hand. The issue, in liberal policy circles, or one issue anyway, is called “asset-building”; it’s about reducing the vast disparities in net worth between whites on the one hand and blacks and Latinos on the other. I can’t imagine she doesn’t know all about it. But she didn’t say it, and that’s what matters, and so, on what may well have been the key issue for many in the audience, she froze.

Sanders’s weakness is his tendency toward demagoguery. Sometimes he pulls off the grandiose and self-regarding language, because at least you can tell he means it. “They’re right—I am dangerous!” he said at one point of his thirst to take on Wall Street. That was sincere, and good.

But this fracking thing of his. Honestly, people, this is such nonsense. As he did in a recent debate, he thundered about ending fracking. And predictably, he got a huge round of applause. But in actual policy terms, natural gas, though a carbon emitter, is not nearly as bad as coal. And lots of people who care a lot about the environment argue that we need some fracking, at least for the time being, because job number one is to get rid of coal, and the more natural gas we use, the less coal. Sanders surely knows this. He’s not a dumb man. But “fracking” is one of those lefty Pavlov words. So just yell “no fracking!” It is an objectively, as Orwell used to say, pro-coal position. Clinton won’t say that, because she needs votes in southern Illinois, but someone ought to.

Still and all, both had a few good moments. Sanders won the college tuition debate. He said it would cost $70 billion a year and be paid for by a Wall Street speculation tax. “It’s time for Wall Street to bail out the middle class,” he said. I doubt many in the audience could disagree with that. Clinton had one of those humanizing moments when a (Guatemalan, if my limited understanding of Spanish served me) woman in the audience who’s separated from her husband asked what each would do to help her see him again. Sanders whiffed, but Clinton seized the chance to establish a personal connection with the woman, and you could see the woman’s face change.

Finally, we got a glimpse of what a Sanders general election might look like when they showed that clip of Sanders in 1985 defending “Cuber.” I hope Clinton resists the temptation to go Full Rubio on Sanders in the coming week, and I hope her people remind her that Senator Rubio’s reactionary position on Obama’s opening to Cuba is one she’s going to be running against in the fall, if she’s the nominee (any GOP nominee will adopt in essence the Rubio position). So she shouldn’t go there. But the GOP will, and then some. And that probably isn’t the most damning clip out there. It will be fair if the Clinton people nudge Florida voters toward considering this, as long as they don’t deploy plainly right-wing memes to do it.