Unlike the Republican debates, which have been driven by a bizarre hybrid of dire, almost apocalyptic rhetoric and belligerent personal attacks, Democratic debates have been quieter and far more substantive. As Josh Marshall describes it, Republican debates are “high drama,” even while being “toxic” as a contribution to our wider civic and political dialogues. As a result, it’s often more difficult to pull out singular dramatic moments that stand out like the exchange between Trump and Cruz about New York values. That being said, all debates are political spectacle in some form, providing viewers (and voters) with a mise-en-scene of what democracy should look like. And both political parties, their candidates, and the networks that produce these debates collectively work together to create an image of what politics should look like. Debates also provide a highly visible stage for taking political stands that might otherwise receive little attention.
And this is why I believe Clinton’s closing remarks–which she used to highlight the horrifying toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan–was so important. Rather than using that moment to make a case for her candidacy, Clinton directly addressed the crisis (which had not been raised by the moderators), stating emphatically:
I think every single American should be outraged. We’ve had a city in the United States of America where the population, which is poor in many ways, and majority African American has been drinking and bathing in lead contaminated water. And the governor of that state acted as though he didn’t really care. He had requests for help that he basically stonewalled. I’ll tell you what: If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water and being bathed in it, there would have been action.
Clinton’s comments directly address issues of race and social class that often go ignored in political debates, while also highlighting the importance of infrastructure and good government. And to a great extent, the comments essentially forced Sanders to use his time essentially agreeing with her position. Her comments also immediately provoked a response from Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who tweeted the following:
Snyder’s defensive tweet immediately drew criticism across the social media landscape, showing again how his failure to react to requests from Flint for help were so destructive. I’m trying to resist using this blog to engage in speculation about the horse race, but I believe Clinton’s Flint comments could prove to be a pivotal moment in the Democratic primary.