They probably didn’t change many voters’ minds at this late date, but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont went after each other in Thursday night’s presidential debate in New York with a ferocity rarely seen in the lengthy Democratic contest.
With a lot on the line in the run-up to next Tuesday’s New York Democratic primary, Sanders unleashed the heart of his critique – that Clinton was beholden to special interests on Wall Street and that she lacks the judgment to be the next commander in chief. Clinton fired back that Sanders was a liberal dreamer with no real grounding in practical politics and a naïf on foreign policy and national security.
Clinton and Sanders barely made eye contact by the end of the two-hour clash hosted by CNN in Brooklyn NY, and parted more as political enemies than party rivals.
Sanders has won seven of the last eight Democratic caucuses and primaries and makes the argument that he would be in a much stronger position than Clinton to defeat Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump in the general election campaign. Despite his strong showings and huge rallies in New York and elsewhere, Clinton has pulled far ahead of him in the contest for both pledged and “super” delegates, and Sanders is desperately trying to deny her the 2,383 delegates needed for their party’s nomination.
Currently, the count is 1,776 delegates for Clinton and 1,118 for Sanders. Clinton leads Sanders in the polls in New York by 10 or more percentage points and is almost certain to pick up a majority of the state’s 291 Democratic delegates next Tuesday. If she has a good night in New York and then continues to pile up delegates in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland and other Northeastern states later in the month, it will be virtually impossible for Sanders to stop her.
While there were many fascinating – and often brutal – exchanges in last night’s debate, here are five of Clinton and Sanders’ biggest wins:
Clinton attacked Sanders over his support of 2005 legislation that protects gun manufacturers and dealers from lawsuits over the use of guns in criminal activity. She called the legislation the “most important priority” of the National Rifle Association and a “unique gift” to gun makers. She essentially accused Sanders, a Vermont democratic socialist, of kowtowing to the NRA over the years, even as he boasts of getting a D-minus rating from the powerful organization.
“We hear a lot from Sen. Sanders about the greed and recklessness of Wall Street, and I agree,” Clinton said in one of her better lines “What about the greed and recklessness of the gun manufacturers and dealers in America.”
Clinton clearly took a beating from Sanders on her coziness with Wall Street and questionable practices of accepting large speaking fees and campaign contribution from the financial industry. But she threw Sanders off stride by demanding that he cite one example of how those contributions and fees influenced her conduct. After Sanders stumbled through a response suggesting that Clinton should have automatically backed the breaking up of big banks in the wake of the excesses, Clinton quickly replied, “He cannot come up with any example, because there is no example.”
On the question of candidates disclosing their income tax returns, Sanders as of last night still hadn’t released his returns for a single year, while Clinton has released her family’s returns dating back 30 years. While Sanders promised to release his 2014 tax returns on Friday, Clinton artfully turned Sanders’ incessant call for her to release transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street to suggesting he had something to hide by holding back his returns.
In one of Sanders’ lamest responses of the night, he said his wife, Jane, who handles their family’s taxes, had been too busy to assemble their tax returns for release. “Jane does our taxes,” he said. “We’ve been a little bit busy lately. You’ll excuse us.”
“What's taking so long?” asked CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer. “Because you just have to go to the filing cabinet, make a copy, and release them.”
Clinton went after Sanders repeatedly as a progressive dreamer who is promoting costly programs that have no chance of being approved by Congress.
Clinton’s lament on why debating Sanders can be so frustrating: "It's always a little bit challenging because if Senator Sanders doesn't agree with how you are approaching something then you are a member of the establishment.
Sanders used the trinity of his indictments of Clinton – including her 2002 Senate vote in favor of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, her support of “disastrous” international trade agreements and her coziness with Wall Street – to argue once again that she lacks the “judgment” to be the next commander-in-chief. “I think you need to have the judgment on day one to be both president and commander in chief,” he said. “Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be a president? Of course she does. But I do question her judgment.”
Clinton replied gamely that the people of New York elected her twice as senator and President Obama “trusted my judgement enough to be secretary of state of the United State,” but Sanders continued to argue that government experience alone wasn’t enough to qualify someone for president and that the quality of their decision making was even more important, and that Clinton had been wrong on Iraq and Libya in the Middle East.
Sanders hammered Clinton for accepting big money from Wall Street interests, including $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. He has used the issue not only to raise doubts about Clinton’s integrity and honesty, but also to make the point that she could never be an effective president beholden to powerful special interests.
As he has many times, he scored his biggest win by demanding she release the texts of her speeches to Goldman Sachs, which she refuses to do. Clinton deflected his question, but Dana Bash from CNN wouldn’t let it go and Clinton’s response was feeble.
As for Clinton’s argument that Sanders is largely promoting pie-in-the-sky ideas like universal health care and free college tuition that would not pass muster with the current Congress, Sanders said, “We have got to understand that in America, we should be thinking big, not small.”
His boldest – and riskiest – foreign pronouncement of the night before a New York audience was his claim that Israel’s past violent and destructive responses against the Palestinians in Gaza were “disproportionate” to the threat. He pressed Clinton to clarify her position.
Sanders, the first Jewish politician to make it this far in presidential politics, promised that if elected he would pursue a more “even handed” policy with Israel and the Palestinians, and said he has strong differences with the tactics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He specifically denounced the Israeli military’s conduct in a 2014 military campaign in Gaza, insisting that many lives were lost and buildings destroyed in an over-reaction to attacks by the Palestinian group Hamas.
“If we are ever going to bring peace to that region, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” he said, while adding, “That doesn’t make me anti-Israel.”
A fifth of the New York Democratic electorate is Jewish and support for Israel runs high in the state. So Sanders is risking alienating many voters just days before the primary. Clinton voiced a far more pro-Israel perspective and blamed Hamas for contributing to the casualties by embedding fighters in populous areas. “Of course, there have to be precautions taken,” she said. “But even the most independent analysts will say that the way that Hamas places its weapons….it is terrible.”
Sanders displayed his gift for rallying his base of young voters and liberal activists by doubling down on his proposals for free tuition at public institutions. "Public colleges and universities tuition-free? Damn right! That is exactly of what we should be doing,” he bellowed. As for his proposal for a single-payer, national health care program that would supplant Obamacare, Sanders pointed north to a country that has long provided public health care for all. "I live 50 miles away from Canada,” said the Vermont senator. “It's not some kind of communist authoritarian country. They're doing OK."