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

Twice now the candidates have had a chance to go for the jugular, and both times they’ve steered far clear.

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.