Ezra Klein (vox.com) seizes on a defining moment in the debate.
"Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little, by which Wall Street's greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don't."
It was a slow pitch over home plate for Sanders. There's no question he gets more often, no criticism he's better prepared for, than why he calls himself a socialist rather than a capitalist.
And then, in the debate's most interesting moment, Hillary Clinton jumped into the exchange.
"Let me follow up on that, Anderson," she said. "When I think about capitalism, I think about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and make a good living for themselves and their families. I don't think we should confuse what we have to do every so often in America, which is save capitalism from itself."
Sanders didn't push the point:
"Everybody is in agreement. We are a great entrepreneurial nation. We have to encourage that. Of course, we have to support small and medium-size businesses. But you can have all of the growth that you want, and it doesn't mean anything if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent."
This was the single most important exchange of the first Democratic debate — because it's the single most important cleavage in the Democratic Party today. Sanders's profession of agreement obscures a genuine divergence between the two candidates — a disagreement that reflects different views of the role that corporations should play both in the economy and in Washington.
It's at the heart of Sanders' Democratic Socialism vs. Clinton's controlled capitalism.
The theme running through Sanders's political platform and his rhetoric is a deep and abiding skepticism of the role large corporations play in American life. This is core to his advocacy for single-payer health care, to his proposal to base pharmaceutical innovation around public prizes rather than private profits, to his plan to get big money out of American politics, to his opposition to private prisons, to his promise to break up the biggest banks, and more.
All those policies are driven, in part, by the fact that Sanders fundamentally mistrusts big businesses — he believes their most crucial innovations often simply free-ride on publicly funded research, he worries that their massive profits allow them to buy off politicians and rig the system for themselves, and he thinks they have too much power to squeeze worker pay in order to pad the coffers of executives and shareholders.
Clinton has a different approach.
Clinton doesn't share Sanders's mistrust. Her health-care plans have always envisioned a big role for private insurers, her trusted advisers include corporate executives, her Wall Street reforms leave large banks intact, and her history as a fundraiser displays a mastery of working with corporate titans rather than a rejection of their political role.
Clinton believes big businesses are major, positive contributors to American life — they have their excesses, sure, but they drive important innovations, they employ huge numbers of Americans, and they deserve a seat at the political table. Her record as a policymaker shows that her instinct isn't to use the government to replace the services corporations provide but to use the government to help make sure everyone can afford those services, and to make sure the profit motive doesn't lead to abuse.
Clinton walks in the tradition of her husband and President Obama, both of whom emerge out of a post-Reagan strain of Democratic thinking that sees the private sector as vastly more efficient than the public sector. ...
Sanders comes out of an older Democratic tradition — the tradition that created single-payer systems in Medicare and Medicaid, rather than private-public partnerships like Clintoncare and Obamacare. He didn't trust the post-Reagan Democrats when they rose to power, and so he's well placed to take advantage of the failures of their policies.
For a graphical illustration of the difference, consider the increase in economic inequality that began at about the start of the Reagan presidency. That increase continued unabated regardless of which party controlled Congress and regardless of which party occupied the White House. So Clinton does "walk in the tradition" of the Post-Reagan Democrats. Sanders wants to walk us back to a different Democracy. Consider whose policies are likely to bend the economic and political inequality curve.