Clinton, Sanders Clash In Final Democratic Debate Before Iowa Caucuses
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed in the final debate before the Iowa Caucuses in the context of a race that has appeared to become tighter than it was before Christmas.
With two weeks to go before the Iowa Caucuses, the Democratic candidates for President met in South Carolina for a debate that largely turned into a battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over the future of the Democratic Party and what Clinton contends have been policy shifts by Senator Sanders over the years that belie the image of consistency he has campaigned on:
Hillary Clinton targeted Bernie Sanders’s electoral appeal with some of her strongest language yet in a debate on Sunday night, seizing on Mr. Sanders’s recent policy shifts on universal health care and gun control to try to undercut his image as an anti-political truth teller.
Mrs. Clinton also repeatedly aligned herself with a former political rival, President Obama, as she sought to portray her current one, Mr. Sanders, as a fringe candidate who did not stand with Mr. Obama on major issues like Wall Street regulation. Mr. Sanders, in turn, gave no quarter as he criticized Mrs. Clinton as dishonest in her attacks.
With Mr. Sanders gaining on her before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, Mrs. Clinton cast herself as the defender of Mr. Obama’s record and Mr. Sanders as playing into Republican hands with proposals like replacing the Affordable Care Act with a single-payer plan, which Mr. Sanders describes as “Medicare for all.”
“We’ve accomplished so much already,” she said. “I don’t want to see the Republicans repeal it.”
“That is nonsense,” Mr. Sanders said. “What a ‘Medicare for all’ program does is finally provide health care for every man, woman and child as a right.” He added that 29 million people still lack health insurance.
Mrs. Clinton was pointed in her critiques of Mr. Sanders but relatively restrained in tone and words as she sought to raise doubts about what many liberals see as Mr. Sanders’s greatest virtues: his integrity and consistency on policy issues.
She chose not to accuse him of “flip-flopping” on gun control bills as she had earlier on Sunday, but rather said at the debate that she was “pleased” he had “reversed” himself.
For Mrs. Clinton, it was enough to note Mr. Sanders’s changes in policy: By doing so, she raised doubts about his consistency, but stopped short of eviscerating his positions and potentially alienating a restless liberal base that largely favors Mr. Sanders.
Her tactics left Mr. Sanders appearing frustrated at times, such as when he called her “very disingenuous” on his gun record, or when he sighed audibly and rolled his eyes as she implicitly questioned his principles on health care.
When Mrs. Clinton pushed on his health care plan, which she said would “tear up” the president’s signature achievement, he shot back: “No one is tearing this up. We’re going forward.”
The competition to claim Mr. Obama’s political mantle was the dominant theme of the night, given that the Democratic race has become so close in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Mr. Obama remains widely popular among party members, particularly in the state that Mrs. Clinton now needs to win more than ever: South Carolina, which votes on Feb. 27. Should she lose the first two nominating contests, Mrs. Clinton and her team believe she can regain political momentum in the South Carolina primary, in part because of her strong support among African-Americans there.
Mrs. Clinton repeatedly reiterated her support for Mr. Obama’s agenda, while Mr. Sanders tried to present himself as the bolder choice to build on Mr. Obama’s legacy. But she stymied him at times: When Mr. Sanders criticized Mrs. Clinton for accepting more than “$600,000 in speaking fees” from Goldman Sachs, she used the moment to portray Mr. Sanders as opposed to Mr. Obama on the issue of Wall Street regulation.
Mr. Sanders did not break any new ground as he challenged Mrs. Clinton on policy, but instead tried to deepen his ongoing critique of her as an ally of wealthy and powerful interests: an argument that has resonated with many younger and liberal Americans in the early-voting states. He tried, for instance, to turn the debate over health care and the candidates’ positions on Wall Street into a referendum on big money in politics, an implicit criticism of the “super PAC” and wealthy donors supporting Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
“It is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry,” he said. “That’s what this debate is about.”
For Mrs. Clinton, the debate was often as much about the past — the Obama years and, at times, her ties to her husband, former President Bill Clinton — as about her ideas for improving the lives of Americans. While Mr. Sanders repeated one or more of his liberal policy views at almost every turn, Mrs. Clinton tended to present herself as an inheritor of the Democratic Party’s traditional agenda on the economy, social safety nets and foreign policy. Asked what role Mr. Clinton would play in her administration, and whether his advice would be official or take place at the kitchen table, Mrs. Clinton did not make much effort to present herself as the fresh-thinking independent figure that Mr. Sanders claims to be.
The two candidates, both under exceptional pressure in their final debate before the Iowa caucuses, were a study in contrasts. Mrs. Clinton seemed careful to be impassioned but not overly aggressive, while Mr. Sanders was his typically emphatic self, waving his hands frequently as his unmodulated voice rose at times to a near-holler. He smiled a few times, but it felt awkward. Mrs. Clinton laughed a few times, but it felt forced.
With the debate unfolding just blocks from the shooting last year at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church here, which left nine people dead, the topic of gun control arrived early and evoked emotional responses from all three candidates onstage. Mr. Sanders sought to defend his commitment to the issue, saying, “I have a D-minus voting rating from the N.R.A.”
Pressed on his shifting position on a provision of Senate legislation that would have held gun manufacturers and sellers accountable for crimes committed with firearms, Mr. Sanders said that while he supported parts of the bill, “a small mom-and-pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if someone does something terrible with that gun.”
Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Sanders for his votes on several gun control measures, including the so-called Charleston loophole that allowed Dylann Roof, the gunman in the church attack, to purchase his weapon. “Let’s not forget what this is about,” she said, her voice growing more impassioned. “Ninety people a day die from gun violence in this country.” She continued, “One of the most horrific examples, not a block from here, where we had nine people murdered.”
She also sought to damn Mr. Sanders with faint praise by saying she was “pleased” that he had reversed himself on supporting legal immunity for gun manufacturers and dealers. As she listed Mr. Sanders’s past votes and jabbed at him over the immunity issues, Mrs. Clinton implied that her main opponent had not thought through his bank-busting domestic agenda.
The Washington Post’s coverage also emphasized the sharpness of the tone between Clinton and Sanders:
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton aggressively prosecuted Sen. Bernie Sanders on issues from gun control to health care and fealty to President Obama at a presidential debate Sunday as she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch.
Clinton put Sanders on the defensive through much of the two-hour debate, but a hoarse-voiced Sanders got in numerous digs. He accused Clinton of being too cozy with Wall Street and beholden to the financial industry. He noted that Clinton has accepted millions in campaign donations and hundreds of thousands in speaking fees from the financial sector.
With raised voices, interruptions and wonky examinations of one another’s voting records and policies, Sanders and Clinton battled over who had the more progressive or more workable solutions. Their exchanges were the most combative and personal of the campaign so far, reflecting the newly potent threat Sanders poses to Clinton in her second White House run.
The debate revealed a stark contrast between a status quo vision of pragmatism represented by Clinton and the lofty aspirations of the most leftward wing of the party represented by Sanders.
While Clinton pledged to work with both parties in Washington, Sanders insisted that progressive change will come only with a dramatic shake-up in the political system. “Nothing real will happen unless we have a political revolution,” he said.
Throughout the debate, Clinton found ways to cast herself as the rightful heir and protector of the Obama legacy. On health care, she said she was the one to preserve the Affordable Care Act. On financial reform, she commended him for the Dodd-Frank bill regulating Wall Street. And on foreign policy, she recalled her days as secretary of state advising the president in the White House Situation Room.
The debate came 15 days before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, a key test of both candidates’ strength and momentum. It was the last debate and probably the final face-to-face meeting for Clinton and Sanders before the Iowa contest, which has suddenly become a dogfight after several sleepy months during which the raucous Republican campaign drowned out the Democrats.
Long-shot candidate and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley joined Clinton and Sanders for the debate sponsored by NBC News, YouTube, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and the South Carolina Democratic Party.
The leading candidates also sparred over financial regulations. Sanders said Clinton was too friendly with Wall Street over two decades in national politics to be trusted to effectively crack down on the industry.
“Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?” Sanders asked. “It’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to do this and do that,’ but I have doubts.”
The senator from Vermont said the financial system was “corrupt,” noting that it is “very strange that a major financial institution that pays $5 billion in fines for breaking the law, not one of their executives is prosecuted while kids who smoke marijuana get a jail sentence.”
Clinton said there was “no daylight” between their plans for the banking industry. She said that experts had determined her proposals were effective and strong, to which O’Malley interjected: “It’s just not true.” He said Clinton would not go far enough to punish financial institutions and their top executives.
Clinton used the exchange on financial regulations to drive a wedge between Sanders and Obama. She noted that Sanders in the past has criticized the president for accepting contributions from Wall Street and called the president “weak” and “disappointing.”
“I’m going to defend Dodd-Frank and I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results,” Clinton said.
Co-moderator Andrea Mitchell raised the issue of Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs, asking Sanders why he has criticized the former president’s past transgressions.
Frustrated, Sanders said he “cannot walk down the street” without reporters asking him to attack Hillary Clinton.
“His behavior was deplorable,” Sanders said of Bill Clinton. “I’m going to debate Secretary Clinton and Governor O’Malley on the issues facing the American people, not Bill Clinton’s personal behavior.”
At that, Clinton nodded and smiled.
Last night’s debate took place amid the impending beginning of voting in the 2016 primary process and, most importantly, signs that the race between Clinton and Sanders had suddenly become more competitive than it appeared to be as recently as early December when it appeared that Clinton was sailing smoothly toward an early end to the fight for the Democratic nomination. For example, recent polling has shown Senator Sanders continuing to lead Clinton in New Hampshire, and even expanding that lead to levels that he had not seen since the summer when Clinton’s campaign was largely listing thanks to things such as questions about her use of a private email server, donations to the Clinton Foundation, and months of speculation about whether or not Vice-President Biden would enter the race. While Clinton had managed to close the gap in the Granite State, more recent polling has shown Sanders expanding his lead again to the point where RealClearPolitics now shows him with a 6.2 point advantage with just over three weeks left before voters there head to the polls. Similarly, Senator Sanders has shown renewed strength in Iowa, which holds its caucus on February 1st, although Clinton maintains a lead in the RealClearPolitics average in the Hawkeye State of 4.2 points. The picture is much different on the national level, though. While some polling has shown Clinton’s national lead shrinking into single digits, the most recent poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal gives Clinton a twenty-five point lead and she has a 12.7 point lead in the RealClearPolitics national average. This last point continues to suggest that Sanders appeal in Iowa and New Hampshire may not be something that translates well to other parts of the country, especially the south as evidenced by South Carolina, where Clinton has a forty point lead in the RealClearPolitics poll average.
It’s entirely unclear what impact this debate is actually going to have on the Democratic race in the short term, not the least because in many respects Clinton and Sanders were speaking to two entirely different audiences for most of the night. Clinton, for the most part, was addressing mainline Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire who likely continue to have doubts about a candidate like Sanders, who while he may be pushing ideas that appeal to them on some emotional level clearly does not seem to be a candidate that could succeed in a General Election. She was also speaking to the broad coalition of Democrats who remain fiercely loyal to President Obama. This includes not only voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, but also the significant African-American population of South Carolina that helped President Obama win the primary there eight years ago and who have largely shied away from supporting a candidate like Sanders. To a large degree, the Clinton campaign obviously believes that these voters, and especially the African-American population in the south, will be the firewall that the campaign needs to fend off whatever momentum Sanders may have coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire. Sanders, on the other hand, was speaking to the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party and to younger voters in the early primary states who have been attracted to his campaign largely because it doesn’t represent the “politics as usual” approach that they see from Clinton. At least in the short term, the question for both candidates is going to be which bloc of voters shows up in greater numbers in Iowa and New Hampshire, and that is going to depend more on how effective their respective ground games are than it is on what was said in a debate on a Sunday night in January. In any case, at least for the moment it’s clear that Senator Sanders is giving Hillary Clinton a much tougher fight than seemed likely just six weeks ago. The question that will be answered over the next three weeks is whether that translates into electoral success for him, or whether his movement fizzles out under the weight of the Clinton juggernaut.