Clinton, Sanders finally get heated in debate spotlight
By Evan Lips | February 5, 2016, 7:32 EDT
DURHAM, N.H. — And then there were two, and for the first time in the Democratic presidential nomination process, the contenders had a debate stage all to themselves.
Thursday night’s bout at the University of New Hampshire did not disappoint voters hoping for a little liberal bloodletting to enter what has been a relatively tame sprint to the New Hampshire primary, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traded barbs in the name of out-progressiving each others’ progressivism.
“I think it’s time to end the very artful smear you and your campaign have been carrying out,” Clinton told the Brooklyn-born Vermonter early on, after Sanders called out Clinton for relying on SuperPAC donations while at the same time ripping the US Supreme Court’s landmark Citizen’s United decision that allows them to exist.
A visually stunned Sanders responded with raised eyebrows and a “whoa, whoa,” while a smattering of boos rose from the crowd. Clinton quickly worked to defuse the situation by suggesting, “let’s talk about the issues that divide us.”
Yet, from the outset, it was clear that Clinton intended to fire back at Sanders over what she perceived as an attempt to paint her as a moderate prone to shirking traditional liberal values, as her “smear” comment made clear.
MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow appeared to prod Clinton into that direction when she noted that Sanders is “basically arguing that you (Clinton) are not progressive enough to be the Democratic nominee” and asked the former First Lady why liberals should support her and not her opponent from Vermont.
Clinton proceeded to invoke the names of popular Democrats who at times strayed from toeing the liberal line, even mentioning “the late, great” Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash in 2002, for supporting the Defense of Marriage Act.
“If we’re going to get into labels, I don’t think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times,” Clinton said, firing a shot at Sanders’s moderate record on gun control legislation.
Clinton repeatedly turned to the word “progressive,” at one point mocking Sanders as “the self-proclaimed gatekeeper of progressivism,” and frequently returned to the mantra, “I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.”
Clinton appeared to remain on the offensive whenever Maddow or fellow moderator Chuck Todd raised the topic of progressivism but seemed to be caught off guard when Maddow mentioned her ties to Wall Street and the finance world — especially when she relayed a question submitted by New England Cable News on whether Clinton would consider releasing transcripts of the paid speeches she delivered to banking institutions like Goldman Sachs.
“I will look into it,” Clinton said, before immediately turning the question around and talking about her history of advising others, including “advising the president about going after Bin Laden.”
Sanders, presented with his bread-and-butter topic of big banks and Wall Street, pounced. The self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont name-dropped popular Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren as someone who agrees with him that the banking industry is overdue for increased regulations.
“I think if Teddy Roosevelt were alive today, a good Republican by the way, what he would say is: Break them up; they are too powerful economically, they are too powerful politically,” Sanders said. “And that is what I believe and many economists believe — time to break them up.”
An area of Thursday’s debate that appeared to play into Clinton’s hands was when the topic shifted to foreign policy. Todd at one point questioned why Sanders has yet to lay out his foreign policy views. Sanders responded by referencing a recent speech he gave at Georgetown University in which he talked about both socialism and international affairs, noting that the former received much more play in the media than the latter.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have combined the two in my speech,” Sanders said, before reminding the audience that he, and not Clinton, voted against going to war in Iraq.
Sanders, however, elected not to challenge Clinton’s track record heading the State Department.
“I fully concede that Secretary Clinton, who was secretary of State for four years, has more experience — that is not arguable — but experience is not the only point, judgment is,” he said.
Clinton nevertheless boasted about her management of the State Department, at one point noting that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger — who served the same post under Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford — told her she ran the office “better than anybody had run it in a long time.”
A topic that Sanders took advantage of is the drinking water crisis currently gripping the city of Flint, Michigan. Asked by Maddow if they would dispatch the federal government to fix the problem, both candidates responded with an enthusiastic yes.
Clinton pointed out that she will be visiting the beleaguered city Sunday “at the mayor’s invitation” to get an “in-depth briefing” but it was Sanders, however, who drew cheers when he rhetorically questioned whether the problem would be addressed more quickly had it occurred in a more affluent community.
“It is disproportionately African American and minority,” Sanders said. “And what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable.”
Before Clinton could add anything about how race and socioeconomic conditions may have played a role in the disaster, Maddow switched topics — but that did not stop Clinton’s campaign from taking to social media within seconds on her behalf:
There are more Flints out there—overwhelmingly low-income communities of color. This is unconscionable. #DemDebate
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 5, 2016
Flint will play a prominent role during the nomination process in March. As part of the deal ironed out between the Clinton and Sanders camps, the Democratic National Committee has scheduled an additional debate in the Michigan city at Clinton’s request.
As for New Hampshire, Real Clear Politics’ latest average of six different polls shows Sanders holding a 19.5-point edge over Clinton.
The New Hampshire primary is slated for Tuesday.