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Feb. 12 2016 12:15 AM

Bernie Sanders Is Getting Better on Foreign Policy. A Tiny Bit Better. 

Prior to tonight’s debate, Bernie Sanders often seemed to be more or less ceding the foreign-policy debate to Hillary Clinton, with the exception of attacking her 2003 vote for the war in Iraq. In previous debates, he’s fallen back on the Iraq crutch, even when asked about North Korea. As Vox’s Max Fisher recently wrote, with this lack of interest in international issues, especially when running against a former secretary of state, Sanders “opens himself up to criticism [that he is] dangerously disengaged while also abandoning a potentially useful line of attack that Clinton is too hawkish.”

Sanders is also blowing a chance to push Clinton to the left on foreign policy as he has on issues like criminal justice reform and income inequality. (Peter Beinart wrote a good piece making this point earlier this week.) He’s also depriving the Democratic party of a real debate on foreign policy approach, given that the interventionist policies Clinton has supported, including backing the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and imposing a no-fly zone over Syria, are out of step with much of her party.

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So how did he do on foreign policy tonight? A little better.

Sanders started out by responding to a broad question from Judy Woodruff about whether the U.S. is prepared for another terrorist attack by again bringing up Clinton’s Iraq vote, setting up Clinton for the prepared zinger: “I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016.”

Viewers also got a Cold War history lesson. Discussing “unintended consequences,” Sanders invoked the 1953 CIA-supported overthrow of Iranian President Mohammad Mosaddegh—a sore point in U.S.-Iranian relations to this day—as well as the many sins of Clinton’s friend Henry Kissinger, notably the secret bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that led to the rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge.

So, yes, Sanders is better at attacking past examples of American foreign-policy misadventures than in giving concrete proposals for how he would address current crises. He didn’t have much to say about Syria or confronting Russia. His feints at hawkishness—promising to protect Eastern Europe against Russian aggression and citing Winston Churchill as a role model—felt a little forced. He said he opposed Clinton’s calls for a no-fly zone in Syria, but didn’t really explain why. By contrast, Clinton was clearly in command of the facts on the recently negotiated ceasefire in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe, whatever you think of her policies.

But Sanders was never going to be the foreign-policy experience candidate in this race. He even acknowledged this, saying, “Secretary of state for four years. You have a bit of experience, I would imagine.” As long as he can avoid gaffes, which he did in Milwaukee, and the moderators don’t throw any curveballs by asking about violence in Burundi or the elections in Haiti, Sanders can probably skate by, particularly as the Clinton campaign has made the ill-advised choice to go after him as too dovish on Iran and too critical of Israel, both lines of attack unlikely to dissuade left-leaning Democrats from feeling the Bern. I may wish he’d talk more about international issues, but his overwhelming focus on domestic issues has been working for him so far. And at least at PBS debate, he didn’t seem like he wanted to run off the stage when the foreign policy portion began. He is better today at conveying that he cares about these issues than he was a few months ago.

Still, his current approach isn’t going to cut it in a general election against a Republican candidate. The GOP primary has focused far more on Syria, ISIS, and terrorism generally. Any Republican candidate facing Sanders will attack him as a naïve dovish idealist, unwilling to stand up to global threats. He’s going to need an answer—and “but she voted for Iraq” isn’t going to cut it anymore.  He’s also going to need some actual foreign-policy advisors.

Moreover, while it may not be what motivated him to run, international affairs would dominate a large part of his presidency as it does all presidencies. While there’s a remote chance that President Sanders’ universal healthcare plan would ever be passed, he would definitely have to make heartbreakingly difficult decisions that could affect thousands of lives in Syria—and that’s just one crisis we know about now.

Feb. 12 2016 12:05 AM

The PBS Democratic Debate Was a Tie, but a Tie Goes to Bernie at the Moment

Fresh off a race-altering and historically large victory in New Hampshire, Bernie Sanders arrived at the Democratic debate on Thursday with all the momentum. He left with a bit more, but barely.

There was no clear winner on the PBS stage. There were no major gaffes, or clear-cut knockout blows. Both Sanders and Hillary Clinton had their moments, and their (minor) mistakes. But most of their exchanges centered on posture—Bernie the idealist; Hillary the pragmatist—not policy. Sanders seized every opportunity he could to deliver his secular sermon on income inequality. Clinton never missed a chance to tout her experience and policy knowledge.

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All in all, it wasn’t the type of nuanced policy debate we’ve seen from these two in the past. When they weren’t talking past each other, as they did early in the debate on the subject of health care, they were talking in the same direction, as they did on the subject of systematic racism. Based on what happened in the past two contests—the tiniest of victories for Clinton in Iowa and a much larger for the surprise underdog challenger Sanders in New Hampshire—a tie favors Sanders, who gets to continue to ride the narrative of the anti-establishment figure who is battling against one of the most powerful people in the Democratic Party and somehow holding his own. Based on what much of the chattering class sees when they look to the next two contests, meanwhile, a tie favors Clinton, who still holds key polling and structural advantages that will not change as long as the status quo remains. Still, if I had to call a winner based only on what I saw on stage and what matters for the current moment, I’d give it to Bernie by the wispiest of gray hairs.

Clinton had a few good shots late in the debate on Sanders for not being supportive enough of President Barack Obama, still a popular figure in the Democratic Party, but there was no one killer blow. Sanders, meanwhile, had a memorable line slamming Clinton’s past admiration for former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Sanders basically described as a war criminal whose actions led to one of the worst genocides in history.

My tie break, though, came not from a candidate's answer but from a question asked to Clinton by moderator Gwen Ifill toward the middle of the debate:

Secretary Clinton your campaign has recently ramped up criticism of Senator Sanders for attending Democratic Party fundraisers from which you say he benefited. But nearly half of your financial sector donations appear to come from just two wealthy finance years, George Soros and Donald Sussman, for a total of about $10 million. You have said that there is no quid pro quo involved. But is that also true of the donations that wealthy Republicans give to Republican candidates, contributors including the Koch brothers?

Hillary responded first with the (absurd!) claim that she had nothing to do with the super PAC in question and then, shortly after, went from touting her own small-dollar network to hyping her opponent’s. “I am proud of Senator Sanders, and his supporters,” she said. “I think it's great that, you know, Senator Sanders, President Obama, and I have more donors than any three people who have ever run.” The answer was bad—though nowhere near her worst on the topic—and allowed Sanders to make his own case. But it was the question that packed the biggest punch. Millions of voters had just watched as a candidate who is promising to reform our campaign finance system dodged a question that made an implied comparison of her donors to the Koch brothers. That’s hardly an image any candidate wants, let alone one who is running against an opponent who promises to break Wall Street’s hold on Washington. For his part, Sanders capitalized on that tough question for Clinton with a series of snark bombs:

Let's not insult the intelligence of the American people. People aren't dumb. “Why In god's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions?” I guess just for the fun of it. They want to throw money around.

After nearly a year of campaigning—and after six debates—that moment is unlikely to significantly move the needle one way or the other. Nonetheless, it was a stark reminder that Sanders couldn’t have been handed a better candidate to challenge with his promise to upend the system.

Feb. 11 2016 11:16 PM

Of Course Priorities USA Is Clinton’s Super PAC

Thursday night's PBS debate co-moderator Gwen Ifill asked Hillary Clinton about large donations made by financial titans like George Soros to her super PAC. It was a toughly phrased question on what's become a tough issue for Clinton, for which there aren't many rousing answers.

"Nearly half of your financial sector donations come from ... George Soros and Donald Sussman," Ifill asked. "You said there's no quid pro quo. Is that also true of the donations that wealthy Republicans give to Republican candidates, contributors including the Koch brothers?" 

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Clinton defended herself first by comparing herself to President Obama, who also took Wall Street donations and whom Sanders nevertheless claims to view favorably. Then she got a bit more creative in attempting to distance herself from the super PAC entirely.

"I can't speak for the Koch brothers," she said. "You're referring to a super PAC that we don't coordinate with, that was set up to support President Obama, that has now decided they want to support me. They are the ones who should respond to any questions." A few minutes later she reiterated this Who, me? attitude toward the support from Priorities USA, the super PAC in question: "But the real issue I think the senator is injecting into this is that if you had a super PAC, like President Obama had, which now says it wants to support me, it's not my PAC, if you take donations from Wall Street you can't be independent."

The idea that there was Hillary Clinton just settin' up the ol' presidential campaign when along came this super PAC, unbeknownst to her, that decided to collect money on her behalf just for its own sake is risible. Support from Priorities USA, among other super PACs, was very much an effort on behalf of Clinton's team to get her elected. Clinton has even helped solicit donations for Priorities. From the New York Times in May:

Hillary Rodham Clinton will begin personally courting donors for a "super PAC" supporting her candidacy, the first time a Democratic presidential candidate has fully embraced these independent groups that can accept unlimited checks from big donors and are already playing a major role in the 2016 race.
Her decision is another escalation in what is expected to be the most expensive presidential race in history, and it has the potential to transform the balance of power in presidential campaigning, where Republican outside groups have tended to outspend their Democratic counterparts.
Mrs. Clinton’s allies hope that with her support, the top Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, will raise $200 million to $300 million. That is on par with what the largest Republican organizations, such as the Karl Rove-backed American Crossroads super PAC and its nonprofit affiliate, spent in 2012.

Campaign chairman John Podesta has been personally courting Priorities donations, too. And then there's Bill Clinton.

Of course, the original idea was that these solicitations would help the Clinton camp raise the money necessary to match Republicans' outside-cash war chest for the general election. When she was building her presidential campaign, Clinton was not considering the fact that she would run into a difficult primary challenge first, against a candidate who might raise vast sums from an alternate fundraising model and use that contrast against her.

Feb. 11 2016 11:10 PM

Sanders Slams Clinton for Praising Henry Kissinger

Hillary Clinton wrote a book last year in which she praised former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, specifically citing him for "respecting national sovereignty" and supporting "participatory and democratic systems of governance." Those were strange things to say given Kissinger's role in sabotaging Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam peace talkssecretly bombing Cambodia, and overthrowing democratically elected Chilean leader Salvador Allende, among other things, and at Thursday night's Democratic debate in Wisconsin Bernie Sanders attacked Clinton in harsh terms on the subject: 

The transcript:

The secretary and I have a very profound difference. In the last debate and I believe in her book, very good book by the way, in her book and in this last debate, she talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger. 
Now, I find it rather amazing because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger, and in fact, Kissinger's actions in Cambodia when the United States bombed that country, and created the instability for the Khmer to come in, who butchered generations of people—one of the worst genocides in the world. So count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger.
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Clinton, who cited Kissinger's praise of her tenure at State in last week's New Hampshire debate, responded that Kissinger was only one of many people she takes advice from and that his work in opening the U.S.'s relationship with China was a historically important success. (Sanders then said that trade with China has caused unemployment in the U.S. before closing his remarks on the subject with the assertion that Kissinger is "not my kind of guy.")

Feb. 11 2016 11:03 PM

Sanders Is Delusional if He Thinks He Can Keep His Promise on Mass Incarceration

After a number of Democratic debates in which criminal justice got barely any air time, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton spent several minutes agreeing with each other Thursday night about holding police officers accountable for criminal misconduct, getting rid of racial disparities in sentencing, and bringing down the prison population.

On this last point, Sanders trotted out an absurd promise he has used several times before: that by the end of his first term, the United States will no longer be the world leader in incarceration.

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What Sanders means by this is that under just four years of his magical leadership, the U.S. will bring down its jail and prison population by about 600,000 people. Where does that figure come from? Consider that the No. 2 spot on the list of countries with the most prisoners in the world right now is China, and it has about 1.66 million people behind bars. The U.S., by comparison, has about 2.3 million

Sanders did not mention during his remarks how he plans to make the leap from 2.3 million to fewer than 1.66 million. But regardless of what he has in mind, it’s pure fantasy for several reasons. Chief among them is that the president of the United States has no direct control over most of the nation’s correctional facilities. This is because jails, which currently hold fewer than 745,000 people, are under local control, and state prisons, which hold about 1.35 million, are under state control. That leaves the federal prison system—the only one that the federal government is actually in charge of—with 210,000 people, or about 10 percent of the pie. 

It’s true that the president has a “bully pulpit” from which he can say inspiring things that set the tone for officials working at all levels of government. It’s also true that in theory, the federal government could try to bribe state governments to rely less on incarceration. But the bottom line is that the feds can only set policy for their own prison system and that means there’s a very low ceiling on the amount of progress that a president, no matter how ambitious he or she is, can do to reduce the prison population. The truth of the matter is that even if Sanders were to free every single person currently sitting in a federal prison, the U.S. would still be ahead of China in the incarceration Olympics by more than 400,000 people.   

This would be a good time to remember, also, that Congress’ current efforts to bring down the prison population by enacting very modest sentencing reforms appear to be falling apart in slow motion because there are enough lawmakers in Washington who think it’s too dangerous to set anyone free, ever. And this is at a time when there’s supposed to be a historic bipartisan consensus over the need for reform.

If Sanders wants to release more than 500,000 people by 2020, he’s going to have to break them out personally. If he has a more efficient approach in mind, he needs to share it before he makes this ridiculous promise again. 

Feb. 11 2016 10:38 PM

U.S., Russia, and Other Powers Agree to Tentative Cease-Fire in Syria

Secretary of State John Kerry announced early Friday morning (local time) in Munich that the U.S., Russia, and other powers had agreed to a “nationwide cessation of hostilities” in Syria that would go into effect in a week’s time. The International Syria Support Group also agreed to immediate humanitarian assistance to areas hit hard by the five-year long conflict, some of which have faced widespread starvation. As the deal was being negotiated, hundreds of thousand of residents of already beleaguered Aleppo were facing a similar fate as the Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, was advancing rapidly.

Kerry was cautiously optimistic reiterating after the agreement was announced that it was only a first step. “What we have here are words on paper,” Kerry said. “What we need to see in the next few days are actions on the ground.” The reality on the ground part has always been particularly tough to navigate in Syria where overlapping militant groups, with tangled allegiances, have made intervention difficult. “It is expected but by no means guaranteed that signatories to the agreement will be able to persuade their proxies and allies on the ground, including Assad and the hundreds of opposition groups fighting against him, to honor the terms,” the Washington Post reports.

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said some portion of Russian airstrikes would stop next Friday. The agreement to halt the fighting, it should be noted, excludes the battles currently being waged against ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated al-Nusra Front. Deciphering which groups are which, even ISIS, is not straightforward and Kerry reiterated at the press conference on the agreement that some Russian airstrikes were targeting groups the West deems moderate forces, not terrorists. Under the agreement, maintaining military pressure on ISIS and al-Nusra will require a much higher degree of consultation, if not coordination, between the U.S. and Russia.

“While humanitarian access is critical to relieving the suffering of millions of Syrians in the short term, a durable and lasting cease-fire will be required if stalled negotiations between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition are to resume on or before the U.N.-set target date of Feb. 25,” the Associated Press notes. “The talks broke down last month before they really started, due largely to gains by Assad’s military with the heavy backing of Russian airstrikes.”

Feb. 11 2016 9:44 PM

The Best Lines of the PBS Democratic Debate

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have had plenty of contentious conversations on stage throughout the primary season. But the stakes have never been higher for the two than they are tonight, especially after Sanders’ huge victory in New Hampshire last Tuesday. If they know what’s good for them, they’ll be doing their best to sell their ideas tonight—and they’ll probably be coming for each other while they’re at it. Follow along here for their best lines.

Clinton on the cost of her proposals:

Especially with health care, this is not about math. This is about people’s lives.
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Sanders, denying that he wants to dismantle the Affordable Care Act:

In my view, health care is a right of all people, not a privilege, and I will fight for that.

Sanders, resisting Clinton’s attempts to price out her policy proposals:

Senator Clinton, you are not in the White House yet.

Clinton, speaking to Wisconsin Democrats:

And Senator Sanders’ plan really rests on making sure that governors like Scott Walker contribute $23 billion on the first day to make college free. I’m a little skeptical about your governor actually caring enough about higher education to make any kind of commitment like that. 

Clinton on getting the support of female voters:

I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me.

Sanders on the need from criminal justice reform:

Today a male African-American baby born today stands a 1 in 4 chance of ending up in jail. That is beyond unspeakable. 

Sanders, explaining how trade policies fuel racial resentment:

No one thinks working in a factory is the greatest job in the world, but you can make a middle class wage. Decent health care, decent benefits. You once had a pension. Those jobs, in many cases, are now gone. They’re off to China.

Sanders on expanding protections for seniors:

You know, you judge a nation not by the number of millionaires and billionaires it has but by how you treat, we treat, the most vulnerable and fragile people in our nation. And by those standards, we’re not doing particularly well.

Clinton on dark money:

The Koch brothers have a very clear political agenda. It is an agenda, in my view, that would do great harm to our country. 

Clinton on what campaign contributions don’t do:

[President Obama] was the recipient of the largest number of donations ever. When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street. He pushed through and he passed the Dodd-Frank regulation, the toughest regulations since the 1930s. So let’s not imply here that either president Obama or myself would not take on any vested interest… to stand up to do what's best for the American people! 

Sanders on where campaign contributions do go:

Why does the fossil fuel industry pay huge amounts of money in contributions? Any connection to the fact that not one Republican candidate for president thinks and agrees with the scientific community that climate change is real and that we have got to transform our energy system?

Clinton on domestic counterterrorism efforts:

We need to understand that American Muslims are on the front line of our defense. They are more likely to know what’s happening in their families and their communities, and they need to feel not just invited but welcomed within the American society. 

Clinton on voting records:

I do not believe a vote in 2002 is a plan to defeat ISIS in 2016. It's very important we focus on the threats we face today.

Sanders on one of Clinton’s “friends”:

I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country. I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.

Sanders on responding to humanitarian crises:

Given our history as a nation that has been a beacon of hope for the opposed, for the downtrodden… I very strongly disagree with those Republican candidates that say, You know what, we’ve got to turn our backs on women and children who left their homes with nothing, nothing at all. That is not what America is supposed to be about. 

Clinton on Sanders’ criticism of Obama:

I don’t think [Obama] gets the credit he deserves for being a president who dug us out of that ditch, put us on firm ground, and himself sent us into the future… The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect [it] from someone running for the democratic nomination to succeed president Obama. 

This post will be updated throughout the debate.

Feb. 11 2016 8:58 PM

New Bernie Sanders Ad Looks to Recast Self-Styled Revolution for Black Lives Matter Voters

As both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders pivot toward upcoming contests in Nevada (Feb. 20) and South Carolina (Feb. 27), the biggest question for the Sanders campaign is whether it can adapt its insurgent message to make it resonate with voters, particularly those of color, beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. On Thursday, ahead of a Democratic debate in Wisconsin, the Sanders campaign released a new four-minute ad that gives an indication of how the campaign plans to expand Sanders’ self-described message of economic revolution.

The ad features Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who was killed in 2014 while in a police chokehold on Staten Island. A grand jury decided not to charge the officer responsible for Garner’s death with a crime, setting off protests around the country and stoking the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a powerful and emotional ad that focuses largely on Erica Garner and her transformation into a protester in the wake of her father’s death. The video is titled “It’s not over,” which is a line Garner uses in the ad to link the civil rights movement to the struggle for fairness and justice that continues today—and to Bernie Sanders.

“Our people died for this. Martin Luther King died for this. Malcolm X died for this. And who were they? They was protesters. I’m behind anyone who’s going to listen and speak up for us and I think we need to believe in a leader like Bernie Sanders… I believe Bernie Sanders is a protester.”
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The emphasis on Sanders as a protester against the abuses of the criminal justice system, not just of the economic system, comes as Sanders needs to widen his appeal among black voters. As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie pointed out earlier Thursday, the Clintons have built a strong following over the years in black communities in the South and their representatives on Capitol Hill. To counter that support, the Sanders strategy appears to be to target the youthful demographic that has gravitated to his message elsewhere, appealing to young black voters as a protester himself.

Feb. 11 2016 8:15 PM

Watch Thursday’s PBS Democratic Debate Live

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders will meet tonight for the first debate since Sanders won the New Hampshire primary by a historic margin, and likely last before Clinton has the chance to rebound in Nevada and South Carolina later this month. Bernie and Hillary will step on the PBS stage at around 9 p.m. ET, and you can watch all of the action on the live-stream above.

The candidates will want to hit their usual marks, while also reworking their respective messages to reflect both the results of the first two nominating contests and the reality that Nevada’s caucusgoers and South Carolina’s primary voters tend to be far more racially diverse than those in Iowa and New Hampshire. Expect Sanders and Clinton to show up in Wisconsin prepared to talk more about immigration, police reform, and other issues that are particularly important to the Hispanic and black voters they now need. Hillary will start with the advantage. The question is whether she can keep it.

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Elsewhere in Slate:

Feb. 11 2016 5:12 PM

The Thursday Slatest Newsletter

The armed occupation of Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Refuge is over: The four remaining holdouts at the refuge surrendered to the FBI today, although the last of them—an eccentric Ohio man named David Fry—only did so after a long, bizarre phone conversation with other anti-government individuals that was broadcast on a live-feed. In other news:

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Have a good day out there.

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