Only hours after the first Democratic debate closed on October 13, the Associated Press fact-checkers issued their analysis of a random sample of the lies told by the two leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This exercise was charitably described in the headline as “Clinton, Sanders revise history”. But it was weightier than the catalogue of minor errors that usually constitutes media fact-checking.
It pointed first to shameless and serious denials of the truth, such as Mrs Clinton’s claims that she had not reversed herself on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. For some years she has been praising the trade agreement (which she helped to negotiate) as “the gold standard” of such deals. In the debate before a highly-partisan and unionised Democrat audience, however, she switched, claiming with a straight face merely that she had “hoped” it would be the gold standard but that, alas and alack …
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Her donors in Wall Street and corporate America might in theory be alarmed by this betrayal of their interests—except that they are quietly confident that if she succeeds in winning the presidency, she will switch right back again after the briefest of pauses for reflection.
Second, and more significantly, the AP checkers went further than correcting straightforward factual reversals to contesting the arguments and highlighting the contradictions underlying the candidates’ claims. Both Clinton and Sanders, for instance, came under fire for promising to provide students with free tuition.
“Free for the students,” corrected the AP sternly, “but someone has to pay.” It then estimated that the federal and state taxpayers would have to cough up $35 billion (Clinton) or $70 billion (Sanders) over different periods to finance this generosity. And it concluded, this time primly: “Neither candidate told TV viewers of the costs to the treasury of what they propose.”
Sanders was individually reproved by the AP for proposing a doubling of the minimum wage on the grounds that an increase of such magnitude would cause job losses as employers found it too expensive to keep existing workers at the higher pay rate.
This second sort of fact-checking goes beyond simply pointing out that someone is using false statistics or fake quotations. There is a danger that it will evolve over time into ideological criticism in disguise. Thus, the AP might ask Sanders that if government can raise wages by fiat, why not a minimum wage of $100 an hour, before pointing out that this would mean a massive rise in prices, inflation, the dismissal of other workers throughout the economy, mass bankruptcies, and probably (under President Sanders) vast subsidies to failing industries.
Conservatives and Republicans have been expressing anxiety about this expanded concept of fact-checking for some time, since they have been the main victims of it until recently. If it is now being directed at liberals, leftists and Democrats, then it might significantly re-balance the credibility between the two parties while AP’s mood lasts.
With five more Democratic debates in the near future, however, it could also raise real difficulties for Democrat candidates by asking such questions as, “Are there any limits to the ability of governments to improve the lives and pocket-books of their citizens?”
In the abstract most people would agree that such limits not only exist but are pretty tight. But the Democratic debate was taking place not in the abstract but in Las Vegas, which has taken over Hollywood’s original role as the “dream factory” and is in addition one of the most highly unionised cities in America. An audience living in a unionised dream factory is unlikely to accept the idea of limits quietly.
Jim Geraghty summed up the result in National Review Online: the audience of Las Vegas Democrats applauded these sentiments loudly, passionately, and with no regard for the principle of contradiction:
They contended socialism is mostly about standing up to the richest one percent and promoting entrepreneurs and small business; climate change is the biggest national security threat facing the nation; college educations should be free for everyone; all lives don’t matter, black lives do; Obama is simultaneously an enormously successful president in managing the economy and the middle class is collapsing and there’s a need for a “New New Deal” … The audience in Nevada applauded higher taxes, believes that Hillary Clinton doesn’t need to answer any more questions, supports the complete shutdown of the NSA domestic surveillance program, and that Obamacare benefits should be extended to illegal immigrants.
As it turned out, the candidates mostly gave that audience the policies it wanted. Mrs Clinton did so cautiously and with occasional escape clauses; Bernie Sanders did so without reserve; former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley imitated Sanders more and more as the evening drew on; and Lincoln Chafee pandered so incompetently that he achieved little more than providing a full stop to each set of questions.
James Webb—former Democrat Senator, former Navy Secretary under President Reagan, novelist, war hero, and suitably curmudgeonly historian of the Scotch-Irish in America—was the sole hold-out.
“With all due respect to Senator Sanders,” he said, “I don’t think the revolution is going to come, and I don’t think the Congress is going to pay for all this.” But as several commentators have noted, Webb is the candidate of a Democratic Party that no longer exists and of a blue-collar working-class constituency that is no longer reliably loyal to the Democrats. So he was civilly treated by his colleagues, applauded politely by the audience, and largely ignored.
Most commentary since the debate has concentrated on its “horse race” implications. The pundits generally thought that Mrs Clinton strengthened her position, Bernie Sanders marginally weakened his, O’Malley and Chafee damaged what were already weak chances, and Webb honorably isolated himself as if he had wandered into a betting shop thinking it was a church. These initial impressions may well change, but the headline verdict must be that Mrs Clinton restored herself as a formidable candidate to the point where she might deter Vice-President Biden from entering the race and perhaps even defeat him if he does.
The key moment came when Sanders denounced the national curiosity about Hillary’s e-mails as trivial when the world and the middle class were threatened by enormous dangers, was embraced by her, and then loudly applauded by the audience. Any candidate who had thought of exploiting the e-mail scandal at once abandoned the idea. Thereafter the debate turned into a campaign rally for all the Democrats against their wicked Republican opponents rather than an exploration of the different policies advocated by different candidates. Whether by accident or design, it put the entire Democratic Party on show in unusual harmony.
That was probably a good thing for Democrats in the short term. But as Anderson Cooper said mildly, sounding like an anxious chorus in a Greek tragedy, most Americans outside the hall did not share many of the views expressed inside it. He was suggesting that many Americans distrust Mrs Clinton’s accounts of the e-mail scandal, but he could have been talking about many other things said from the platform—and about the changing nature of the party.
As the irrelevance of Jim Webb hinted, the Democrats are no longer a working-to-middle-class party but an alliance of ultra-rich capitalists with liberal social views, middle-class progressives, and public sector unions with a membership tilted towards low-paid immigrants. Hillary gets the first group, Sanders the third, and they split the second. But these groups are uniting around policies many of which will strike most Americans as reckless, odd, even at times sinister.
That came out when a questioner asked if Black Lives Matter or if all lives matter. Considered abstractly, all lives matter most, since they include black lives. But under the pressure of post-Ferguson campaigns, Democrats have been pushed to choose the formulation that Black Lives Matter. Only Webb was prepared to affirm something like the equal value of all lives. So four leading Democrats seemed to deny the equal value of all lives and thus implicitly the worth of white, Hispanic, and Asian lives. They can defend this decision by arguing it is an attempt to rescue the values of black lives neglected until now. But most Americans don’t follow these ideological niceties closely, and it will have looked to them that the Democrats were flirting with anti-white racism.
Similarly with economics. Sanders succeeded in drawing the debate sharply to the socialist left (with modest resistance from Mrs Clinton) so that, as Geraghty pointed out, they risked looking like a socialist party. But do Americans want a socialist party—especially one with odd racialist attitudes? Probably not. And where will the Jim Webbs go?
If the Democrat problem is that they are uniting around the wrong policies, it will be a really serious problem as long as the media is examining their policies with a newly sceptical fact-checking eye.