One of the most frequently repeated phrases at Thursday night's Democratic debate in Milwaukee was "I agree." There was a lot about the debate that sounded familiar to anyone who has watched Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) face off before, but — for all the talk about a vicious Democratic grudge match — the conspicuous agreement between the two candidates was one of the biggest echoes of debates past.
"We both agree that we have to get unaccountable money out of our political system and that we have to do much more to ensure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again," Clinton said in her opening statement. "I would hope that we could all agree that we are sick and tired of seeing videos on television of unarmed people, often African-Americans, shot by police officers," Sanders said shortly after, to which Clinton responded: "You know, I completely agree with Sen. Sanders." The next words out of Sanders' mouth: "Nothing that Secretary Clinton said do I disagree with."
Here's Clinton's closing statement, which begins: "We agree we've got to get unaccountable money out of politics. We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck Main Street again."
The large but shrinking field of Republican candidates has some real disagreements on Syria and ISIS, immigration, trade pacts, China, Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, and where to cut taxes, among other issues. Sanders and Clinton are pretty closely aligned on policy issues. Remarkably so, in fact.
There are real disagreements between the two candidates, prominently including the best way to get to 100 percent health care coverage in the U.S.: scrapping the health insurance industry and upending the medical system to create a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system like in just about every other developed country, or expanding on the Affordable Care Act to push coverage the last 10 percent of the way using private insurance. Most of their disagreements, though, have centered on which one of them got to their shared position first (think Iraq War, gun control).
So why all the Sturm und Drang in the press about the heated, divisive Bernie-Hillary battle for the Democratic nomination and soul of the party?
One reason is that on the issues Sanders cares about — campaign finance, making Wall Street pay for wrecking the economy, single-payer health care, free college tuition — he seems a passionate true believer. Clinton doesn't want to lead a "revolution," she just wants to get stuff done, and when she fights on Sanders' turf — talking tough about Wall Street and drug companies — "she's believable but she's not convincing, she's not persuasive," as liberal columnist Mark Shields said in PBS Newshour's post-debate analysis.
In the New Hampshire Democratic primary, according to exit polls, Sanders won big among voters who want a candidate who's "honest and trustworthy" and "cares about people like me." Clinton dominated among the people looking for a candidate who "can win in November" and "has the right experience."
The big question for the Democratic Party is whether those criteria are mutually exclusive. Would Clinton supporters shun the self-professed democratic socialist who isn't even a Democrat? Would Sanders voters — especially the young voters who have a "visceral dislike for Hillary," as Slate's Jamelle Bouie puts it — sit on their hands or vote for Donald Trump if Clinton gets the nomination?
Democrats faced the same question in 2008, with the pundits making a big stink about the Hillary Clinton partisans who would vote for John McCain or stay home if Barack Obama won the nomination. In the end, if the PUMAs (Party Unity My Ass, or more politely, People United Means Action) did either, it didn't matter much in Obama's 7-point victory over McCain.
This year, for all the talk about the Democrats who loathe Clinton, I haven't seen much evidence that they wouldn't vote for her. Sanders would probably bring in some independents who wouldn't vote for another Clinton, but liberal-leaning independents won't vote for Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio. Talk show host Bill Maher, a Sanders supporter and fellow independent, said recently that if Clinton gets the nod, he'd clearly back her in November. In a cri de coeur at Medium in which Robyn Morton explains why she absolutely won't support Clinton in the primaries, she concludes that if Sanders "doesn't get the nod, then I'll hold my nose and vote for HRC in the general because yes, gods knows we can't let the opponent side in."
On the Clinton side, many of her supporters seem to like Sanders and even agree with many of his ideas, they just don't think he can accomplish any of them, assuming he could even convince Americans to elect him in November. Will older Democrats — with their long memories of lost presidential races — vote for the Republican if their party passes up Clinton again? There will almost certainly be lots of chatter about the PUMAs again, but it seems unlikely that given the GOP field, the older Democratic women who made up the core of that insurgency would throw their support behind any of the likely Republican nominees (sorry, John Kasich).
The Democratic Party is facing a real fight about what kind of candidate it will put forth as standard bearer for the November election — the idealist or the pragmatist. Democrats and left-leaning independents are picking sides, whether they want to or not. But the next time you read about the unbridgeable generational gap in the Democratic electorate, or the trench warfare for the heart and soul of the party, remember that according to Clinton and Sanders, they mostly agree. And that's a lousy way to fight a civil war.