Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders could see his flame fading during the debate with Hillary Clinton on Thursday. If he loses the New York primary on Tuesday he can soldier on, but the gallop that won him eight of the last nine contests is over.
You could tie up all the superdelegates in traffic in the Holland Tunnel until the Democratic convention and Sanders still couldn't win the nomination without New York.
That's probably why Sanders and Clinton rolled out all their old grievances, only louder and more insistently. There was a “no, you didn't, yes, I did” quality to the back and forth. She went after him for his lack of specificity, notably for failing to spell out his plan for breaking up the big banks. He repeatedly questioned her judgment, a big step back from his earlier blunder of saying she wasn't qualified.
“Let's talk about judgment. And let us talk about the worst foreign policy blunder in the modern history of this country,” he said, referring to Iraq. "” led the opposition to that war. Secretary Clinton voted for that.”
She had no comeback , perhaps because there is no comeback, unless you are ready to align yourself with Dick Cheney. Nor does she have one for the hundreds of thousands of dollars she accepted from Wall Street for speeches. She said she would turn over transcripts: “Let's set the same standard for everybody,” she said. “When everybody does it, OK, I will do it.”
Sanders saw an easy pitch and swung.
“I am going to release all of the transcripts of the speeches that I gave on Wall Street behind closed doors, not for $225,000, not for $2,000, not for two cents," he said. “There were no speeches.”
There's a presumption that banks and corporations make donations and pay big speaking fees because they get something for it, whether or not they do. No model of pure ethics, Congress banned such speeches years ago because it looked bad and sometimes was.
Most of the time, Clinton seemed to know that all she had to do was to run out the clock. Her way is to nod her head as if she's only stating what anyone with half a brain would agree with, speak in her best kindergarten teacher's voice and, when exasperated, shout.
Sanders' way is to shout all of the time. It wasn't always this way. Not too long ago, when he and Clinton got along, he seemed happy to pull his punches (remember the line about how sick he was of hearing about her “damn emails”). Clinton patted him on the head no matter what he said, as if he were her doddering grandfather (though he is only a few years older than she is).
Several times, though, Clinton couldn't resist the urge to hit Sanders where he is already bruised. He had to see the left hook coming but still, he had no new explanation for his vote against holding gun manufacturers liable, other than to counter that he was an early and persistent opponent of assault weapons.
He didn't nail her on her big mistake earlier in the week when she claimed that Vermont was responsible for most of the firearms used in crimes in New York. That statement was corrected by Vermont's governor and awarded three Pinocchios by a nonpartisan fact-checker.
Sanders's one big get was showing that Clinton was fudging on how she would save Social Security. Pressed and pressed, she finally admitted that she wouldn't be raising taxes on the wealthy by raising the limit on taxable income for Social Security from $118,000 to $250,000. She prefers a “combination” of fixes.
The most dramatic moment was when Sanders said that “superpredator,” a term Clinton used in 1996 to describe young black criminals, was “racist,” (like the word “liar,” it used to be employed sparingly).
The most amusing exchange was Sander's response to Clinton's claim that she called out the big banks on their mortgage practices during the financial crisis. He asked if that was “before or after” she took money from Wall Street, and then rolled his eyes.
“Oh, my goodness,” he chided her, “they must have been really crushed by that.”
It was a good moment for Sanders but not a great one. Sarcasm doesn't become him. He's an earnest, decent crusader who believes to his core that big money has corrupted the system and tilted the playing field so that the little guy can't get a leg up.
The message appeals not just to young people, but also to many more who know we accept way too much as normal that isn't.
It's not right that Warren Buffett paid less in taxes than his secretary did. It's not right that corporations can give as much money as they want to help politicians get elected. We just don't think anyone will do anything about it.
Sanders would. It's why the light dimmed Thursday night.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.