Anxious to regain momentum lost after a disappointing showing in Nevada, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) sought Tuesday night to break former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s iron grip on black voters and broaden his appeal by more sharply contrasting her differences on an array of issues.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, was on a roll in the Democratic presidential campaign after narrowly losing to Clinton in Iowa before demolishing her by 22 points in New Hampshire a week ago. But he blew a crucial opportunity to send Clinton reeling by losing to her in the Nevada Democratic caucuses last Saturday by five points.
With Clinton now positioned to win big in South Carolina on Saturday with a substantial black vote before heading into next week’s Super Tuesday contest in a dozen other states, Sanders is struggling to broaden his base beyond mostly young, white liberal voters who have been drawn to his populist themes of cracking down on Wall Street and ending income inequality.
While both candidates scored some points and took some hits – including renewed questions about Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street groups and her mishandling of emails during her four years heading the State Department -- the nationally televised two-hour town hall was unlikely to change many votes heading into Saturday’s primary contest.
Sanders made a huge pitch for African American voters last night by stressing his free college tuition plan, a new national health care program, reforms of the nation’s police departments to make them more reflective of their communities, and an overhaul of a criminal justice sentencing system that has led to unprecedented incarceration rates of black men.
He also made an overt appeal to blacks by embracing President Obama’s policies and legacy in a move to try to counteract Clinton’s assertions that the left-wing politician had repeatedly criticized or diminished the president’s record.
Sanders had nothing but praise for the president, including a vigorous defense of Obama’s new plan to finally close a federal prison holding about 90 detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He got one of his best responses from the racially mixed audience in Columbia, S.C., when he denounced Mitch McConnell (KY) and other Senate Republican leaders for refusing to even consider a nomination from the president to fill the vacancy of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died unexpectedly last week.
Sanders said the GOP’s maneuver to keep the seat vacant until after the November presidential election in hopes that a Republican will win the election and choose the next justice was simply the latest in a long series of racially motivated efforts to “delegitimize” the presidency of the first black Democrat to hold the office.
“What you are seeing today is a continuation of the unprecedented obstructionism” of the president’s policies and agenda, and a mean spirited attempt to deny his legitimacy that dates back to Republican Donald Trump’s “birther movement” to try to prove that Obama wasn’t a naturalized citizen qualified to serve as commander in chief.
Clinton, by contrast, responded to a grab-bag of questions, including her take on the Super Bowl performance by superstar Beyoncé that some say was racially-motivated against the police, and another by the Palmetto’s State poet laurate who asked the former First Lady how she planned to harness the power of forgiveness to heal the country’s divisions.
It wasn’t all aspirational for Clinton, who was once again pressed to release the transcripts of the paid speeches she gave to Wall Street, a line of attack Sanders has used in recent weeks.
Clinton said she would release the material "if everybody does it. And that includes the Republicans, because we know they have made a lot of speeches,” she said.
"Why is there one standard for me and not for everybody else?" Clinton asked, to applause.
CNN's Chris Cuomo, who hosted the nationally broadcast town hall in Columbia, S.C., played a late-night clip for Clinton of Stephen Colbert roasting her for saying “I don’t believe I ever have" when asked if she had lied to the American people.
Asked to respond, Clinton joked, “I’ll just say no!”
Then she addressed the ruling by a federal judge on Tuesday that could lead to her and some of her top aides being subpoenaed for personal emails they withheld from the State Department. The move came the same day a new national survey by Gallup for the word most associated Clinton was “dishonest.” Together, the developments have some Democrats asking once again if it’s wise to make Clinton their nominee.
“I’m well aware of the drip, drip, drip” of negative news, Clinton said. “Every single time these charges are hurled against me … it’s proved to be nothing.”
She noted that she had turned over 55,000 pages of emails from her time as the nation’s top diplomat. “It’s just not something that will have any lasting effect,” Clinton predicted.
Overall, the town hall proved to be far less contentious than past events, and paled in comparison to the spirited debates Clinton and Sanders have shared in recent weeks. The pair avoided personal attacks, and looked to build themselves up rather than tear the other down.
Sanders perhaps summed up the tone of the night best when speaking about Clinton near the end of his time on stage. “I like her and I respect her so this is not some kind of personality fight, we’re not Republicans, after all,” he said, before making his closing pitch.