The Sanders-Clinton Slugfest Did Not Happen and It Is Not Going to Happen

Journalists work at the media filing center Saturday during the debate. Journalists work at the media filing center Saturday during the debate. Michael Dwyer/AP

The ten­sion between Hil­lary Clin­ton and Bernie Sanders over the lat­ter cam­paign’s data theft was sup­posed to ex­plode dur­ing Sat­urday night’s Demo­crat­ic. That didn’t hap­pen.

Here’s what did: Sanders ad­mit­ted his cam­paign had done “the wrong thing” by look­ing at the Clin­ton camp’s data, though he ad­ded his staff had a pre­vi­ous op­por­tun­ity to look at those data and had done “the right thing.” He said he had fired the per­son re­spons­ible. He ac­cused the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee of treat­ing his cam­paign un­fairly in the af­ter­math of the data theft rev­el­a­tions. Then came the big mo­ment: He apo­lo­gized to Clin­ton. Clin­ton not only ac­cep­ted, she dis­missed it as an im­port­ant is­sue in the cam­paign—an echo of Sanders’ first-de­bate line that the Amer­ic­an people “don’t give a damn” about Clin­ton’s emails.

And that was it. The con­ver­sa­tion moved on to is­sues of na­tion­al se­cur­ity and gun reg­u­la­tion, the is­sue was gone for the even­ing, and the bit­ter, per­son­al struggle between Clin­ton and Sanders that de­bate watch­ers were wait­ing for nev­er happened.

And guess what? It’s prob­ably nev­er go­ing to.

If a face-to-face throw­down full of per­son­al at­tacks was ever in the cards, they would be on the table already. Both can­did­ates have now had a chance to go for a crush­ing per­son­al at­tack—and both not only passed, they came to their rival’s aid: Sanders waived away Clin­ton’s private email serv­er, Clin­ton dis­missed the Sanders cam­paign’s data peek as a non­is­sue. (Yes, their cam­paigns did some snip­ing, such as this agress­ive tweet from a Sanders ad­visor. But both times when giv­en a high-pro­file stage for a face-to-face at­tack, the two played nice.)

What ac­counts for the lack of per­son­al an­im­us?

In short: Sanders can’t win with per­son­al at­tacks, and Clin­ton can win without them.

For Sanders, it may be that he just can’t bring him­self to use the tac­tics that re­semble those of a stand­ard cam­paign. Or it may be that he knows that many of his sup­port­ers are with him spe­cific­ally be­cause he doesn’t re­semble a stand­ard cam­paign. He prom­ised not to go neg­at­ive, he swore off su­per PACs, and he has built his cam­paign around sup­port for a spe­cif­ic set of policy po­s­i­tions. If he strays too far from that, he risks los­ing the luster of ideal­ism that pulls sup­port­ers to him to be­gin with. (It’s not for noth­ing that, im­me­di­ately after apo­lo­giz­ing to Clin­ton, Sanders offered a second apo­logy, this time to his sup­port­ers, telling them it was not the kind of cam­paign tac­tic he sup­por­ted.)

Sim­il­arly, Clin­ton has little to gain from at­tempt­ing to bury Sanders by un­der­cut­ting his char­ac­ter. She’s still the clear fa­vor­ite to win the party’s nom­in­a­tion, and after a sum­mer in which Sanders put a scare in­to her camp with some sol­id poll num­bers, she again ap­pears well on her way to a primary win. After that, she’ll need sup­port from the lib­er­al base that’s back­ing Sanders when she gets to the gen­er­al elec­tion. That doesn’t just mean votes, it also means con­vin­cing people to vo­lun­teer, or­gan­ize, and donate with the same vig­or that they’re now do­ing for Sanders. And when Clin­ton asks Sanders’s fol­low­ers for their zeal­ous sup­port, she’ll have a much bet­ter chance of get­ting it if she de­feats their can­did­ate without de­mon­iz­ing him.

In­stead of per­son­al at­tacks, they’re both tak­ing a safer route, one that pro­tects Sanders’ move­ment and Clin­ton’s gen­er­al elec­tion pro­spects. And that means spar­ring (some­times po­litely, some­times less so) over policy.

That realm, on Sat­urday night, is where the gloves came off a bit. Sanders hit Clin­ton re­peatedly on for­eign policy, knock­ing her vote for the Ir­aq War when she was in the Sen­ate and say­ing she was too sup­port­ive of the types of for­eign in­ter­ven­tions that, Sanders said, have landed the U.S. in quag­mires.

For her part, Clin­ton took on Sanders over his plans for health care (single-pay­er uni­ver­sal cov­er­age) and edu­ca­tion (free tu­ition), say­ing she would not raise middle-class taxes while his pro­grams, by vir­tue of their huge price tags, would be de­pend­ent on do­ing so. Sanders countered that his pro­grams were a good deal for the middle class even if it in­volved a tax in­crease, and the two were on the verge of a dis­cus­sion that would have il­lu­min­ated not only a ma­jor split between the two can­did­ates, but a il­lus­trated the ma­jor di­vide of the mod­ern Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al Left.

In­stead, the mod­er­at­ors in­ter­vened to ask a ques­tion of Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, and shortly there­after the net­work went to com­mer­cial.

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