If you're a political junkie like me, one of the great things about being alive in 2016 is that there's more than one way to "watch a debate." Last Thursday, I was commuting by train during a lot of the (relatively) rock 'em, sock 'em debate between the Democratic presidential candidates in New Hampshire…so I "watched" it on Twitter.
That meant my view of the clash between Sen. Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was filtered with a thick layer of Internet snark. But it also meant that a lot of my first impression was set by the pundiocracy, the Acela set, or whatever we're calling these days the D.C. pundits who try — with mixed results - to shape our political agenda.
A lot of those TV and Internet talking heads called it a bad night for Bernie Sanders, because he'd seemed to fumble questions about North Korea and other foreign-policy hot spots. But after I got home and saw the actual debate highlights, I realized that it had, in fact, been a devastating night for Clinton.
I saw how her not-so-coherent responses to questions about her $675,000 in speaking fees from the arguably Wall Street's biggest cash cow of our generation - the "vampire squid" known as Goldman Sachs - had hurt her in the debate, and possibly down the road.
And the pundits didn't have a clue.
Clinton had accused Sanders of an "artful smear" in saying she was too close to Wall Street - but she has struggled mightily to explain why Goldman Sachs paid her so much for seemingly so little. "That's what they offered," she'd tried to rationalize the night before in a CNN town hall — seemingly the worst sound bite of the 2016 campaign, at least before Sen. Marco Rubio danced "The Robot" on Saturday night.
In both the debate and the town hall, Clinton noted that prior ex-secretaries of state have made paid speeches, but none of them had been a presidential frontrunner, facing an election to - among other things - someday appoint Wall Street's regulatory watchdogs.
Yet the TV talking heads had a hard time getting their heads around whether Goldman Sachs was a legitimate issue. Later, I read that CNN's Cooper - who'd pressed Clinton so hard on her dealings with Goldman Sachs - gets $50,000 or more for delivering a speech. Talk about boys and girls in a bubble!
Other elite Beltway commentators, like ABC's Cokie Roberts, a panelist at Saturday's Republican debate, also get lucrative speaking fees. The pundits don't understand why the public is getting outraged over a once-and-future public official making more for a 45-minute speech than Joe Sixpack makes in three, four, five years…because they're all soaking in it!
What's actually important is that Goldman Sachs' underhanded dealings played a role in the global financial collapse. The company sucked out billions from the mortgage-trading markets right before the 2008 crash fell on the rest of us, and a 2011 Senate report called Goldman a "case study" in greed. But when Clinton spoke to them in 2013, according to Politico, she offered the Wall Streeters "a morale boost." No wonder she's not racing to release the transcripts.
And the thing is, the average voter - the one who's going to trudge through a half-foot of snow on Tuesday and decide the New Hampshire primary — doesn't care all that much about North Korea and its missile launches. What he or she really cares about is a system that is rigged against them - that barely offers them a clue on how to get their kid through $100,000 or more of college to maybe get a job, but that throws $675,000 at an elite, well-connected politico for a few speeches.
And that's just Goldman Sachs. It's been reported that, out of government, Bill and Hillary Clinton have been paid $153 million for giving speeches, often to corporate or foreign interests that will have a huge stake in what happens in Washington during the next four to eight years. That's the worst kind of corruption…legal corruption.
Legal, yet still astounding.
When I think about why Bernie Sanders seems poised for a stunning win in New Hampshire and is rising in the national polls, I think back on the scores of people I met last fall reporting my e-book on the Sanders phenomenon, The Bern Identity. They were struggling - to juggle their work and caring for an ailing mom or husband, or with a 20-something kid unable to leave their basement as he paid off his student debt. They wanted someone to promise them that America could again be fair, not a place where every break goes to the anointed ones. Clinton's Goldman Sachs fiasco plays right into the storyline they already know by their own heart.
At the Sanders rallies I attended from a blustery Boston to the shimmering heat of Las Vegas, the line that always got the biggest applause was the candidate's call for "a political revolution." The pundits and the poobahs did not see this revolution coming. Do they ever?