Bernie Sanders subscribes to a simple theory of politics: the chief—if not sole—impediment to leftward political change is the power of moneyed interests, which have used their influence (primarily via campaign contributions and super-PACs) to compel members of Congress and other elected officials to block what would otherwise be common-sense policies. The popularity of this view among Democrats, especially liberals, accounts for much of Sanders's unexpectedly successful presidential candidacy. If you hate Wall Street, oil companies, and the insurance industry, and blame them for the growth of economic inequality, the failure of climate change legislation, and the absence of single-payer health care, says Sanders, you can best fight back against these enemies by supporting me.
Because Sanders is running in a Democratic primary, however, it is natural to ask whether his theory—which he repeatedly cites as an explanation for Republican extremism and intransigence—applies to the Democratic Party, and, if so, how. This is a more delicate matter, politically speaking. Since Sanders's worldview leaves relatively little room for honest disagreement over what he sees as obvious truths, it is only natural to conclude that he views the majority of Democrats arrayed to his ideological right as similarly co-opted by Wall Street donations and super-PAC dollars. On the other hand, he understands that many of those Democrats are popular within the party and its primary electorate, so it behooves him to talk in generalities about the flaws of the political system rather than specifically question the integrity of every Democratic politician or group that accepts Wall Street money, votes in a moderate fashion, or refuses to support his ideas and candidacy—even if his campaign is inherently implying that these other party actors are stooges or sellouts.
The Clinton campaign has been circling around this implication-but-not-accusation for a few weeks, looking for a vulnerability to attack, and it is clear from last night's debate that they have decided to try to box Sanders in. First, Clinton accused him, with no little personal pique, of questioning her own integrity via "innuendo" and "insinuation," engaging in an "artful smear" without having the guts to come out and accuse her of having been personally corrupted by wealthy interests. Sanders fought back by relying on his familiar analysis—financial deregulation and other measures were the result of a compromised political system—while refusing to take the bait to attack Clinton personally.
Second, Clinton wanted Sanders to name names. Who, exactly, are the corporate shills in the Democratic Party who, by implication, share the blame for blocking his favored policy agenda? Barack Obama? Joe Biden? Paul Wellstone? Jeanne Shaheen? Once again, Sanders knew better than to answer directly—Obama, he said, had done an "excellent job" even though "I disagree with him on a number of issues," and he returned to a more general systemic analysis rather than get drawn into an argument about exactly who was or wasn't politically compromised.
As both campaigns remember well, the biggest mistake made by Sanders in this race so far was his previous characterization of Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign as "part of the establishment" when he was asked why they had endorsed Clinton. The tension within the Sanders campaign between a general attack on a "rigged system" and a reluctance to criticize specific figures and groups within Democratic ranks reflects a recognition that Democratic voters might well share Sanders's general antipathy toward the "establishment" and corporate interests while resisting the acknowledgement that well-liked party figures—Clinton, Obama, prominent liberal interest groups—are guilty of being part of this "establishment." Last night's debate suggests that he will need to maintain this approach in the face of increasingly insistent attempts by Clinton to pin down the implications of his argument.