The art of debate

‘Those who know when to fight and when not to fight are victorious.’ So wrote the celebrated Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in The Art of War.

An analogous maxim for the political arena could well be, ‘Those who know when to debate and when not to debate win elections.’

The Democratic contenders for their party’s presidential nomination strode on stage for their ninth on-air clash last night knowing the same thing: that Hillary Clinton did not want to be there.

When it comes to one-on-one campaigns like this year’s primary contest, the frontrunner has nothing to gain and everything to lose from participating in a verbal slugfest with her opponent.

Clinton leads her rival Bernie Sanders 51 per cent to 39 per cent among New York Democrats according to a Monmouth University poll released on April 11, and by 57 per cent to 40 per cent if a Wall Street Journal/NBC New York/Marist poll is anything to go by.

This is small surprise, as Clinton was a two-term New York senator who has earned the enduring affection of the Empire State through her actions supporting its people in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Yet this shared history also foists the burden of expectations on Clinton. With New York essentially her ‘home turf’ – yes, Sanders lived in Brooklyn in New York City, but never represented the state – anything less than a big win in next Tuesday’s primary will see pundits and the public alike tag the state as a humiliating defeat for the candidate.

Hence why this debate came at an unwelcome time for Clinton. Sanders already has momentum on his side having scored wins in eight of the last nine state contests. A powerhouse performance by the Vermont senator could clinch a chunk of the nine per cent of undecided Democratic voters identified in the Monmouth poll, and shift some of the 46 per cent of Clinton supporters who have admitted that their support is not locked in into his column – doing enough to make the New York race a much closer match-up.

Unable to refuse the debate outright, Clinton adopted a defensive strategy designed to shore up her support and cushion the impact of a Sanders’ surge.

Did she succeed?

Well, no.

The former secretary of state kept pace with Sanders on banking reform, the environment, and social security, at one point claiming they were in ‘vigorous agreement’ on lifting the cap on social security contributions. In these areas she effectively nullified the political distance between them and burnished her own liberal credentials by emphasising where she would go further then Barack Obama.

Yet on campaign donations, the issue of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs, and most awkwardly on the federal minimum wage, she became unstuck, unable to evade the attacks launched her way by a noticeably more aggressive Sanders.

Also noticeable was Clinton’s failure to calm a debate hall seemingly infected with Bernie-mania. The Brooklyn boy knew his audience and brought his supporters to their feet time and time again. Most impressive of all were his closing comments, in which he conjured the America that he wished to build: one replete with free healthcare, college education, and higher taxes for the wealthy.

Clinton, meanwhile, was downbeat in her final speech, invoking memories of 9/11 and the trials New Yorkers had faced in the years since. The message was simple and explicit: I am one of you, and I want you to have my back like I’ve had yours.

As a gambit to shore up wavering supporters of her own, Clinton probably succeeded. As an attempt to rouse undecideds, she probably fell flat. The real question will be whether when the dust settles on 19 April, she has done enough to stave off the Sanders surge and meet the high expectations she has been set.

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Photo: CNN

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