The bitter struggle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination erupted into fractious and at times personal attacks on Thursday night as the simmering animosities between the two candidates burst onto a Brooklyn stage.
In the ninth and possibly last televised debate between the former secretary of state and US senator from Vermont, the candidates hurled themselves at each other in barely restrained terms. From the first minute of the two-hour event to its final moment, they questioned each other’s judgment, susceptibility to lobbyists and grasp of political reality in by far the most heated discussion of the campaign to date.
From Wall Street to the minimum wage, gun control and mass incarceration, Israel and climate change, the rivals battled to set themselves apart in the hope of pulling ahead in the race. With the stakes so high – just five days before the critical ballot in New York state that carries a bonanza of 291 delegates out of the 2,383 needed to win – the rhetoric also reached a new intensity.
“It is a little frustrating,” Clinton said scathingly towards the end of the CNN/New York 1 debate, “if Senator Sanders doesn’t agree with something you are saying then you are part of the establishment.”
“Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” Sanders said to Clinton earlier on, referring to her claims that she was tough on the big banks. “And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements?” he went on, in a tone that went beyond sarcasm into the fringes of disdain.
The debate was feisty from the off. Sanders walked back from previous comments that he thought his competitor was unqualified for the White House. Answering a question on whether Clinton had the experience and intelligence to be president, he said: “Of course she does.” But hardly pausing for breath, he clarified: “I do question her judgment. I question a judgment which voted for the war in Iraq – the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country.”
Clinton, clearly determined not to be outgunned by her opponent, lashed back by referring to the recent interview Sanders gave to the New York Daily News in which he appeared to struggle over the fine detail of his plan to break up the big banks. “When asked, he could not explain how that would be done and when asked about a number of foreign policy issues, he could not answer about Afghanistan, about Israel, about counterterrorism … I think you need to have the judgment on day one to be both president and commander-in-chief.”
The sour note in the debate was a product perhaps of the make-or-break stage that the Democratic presidential campaign has reached. Clinton has a strong lead of more than 200 delegates and is 2.4 million votes ahead in the popular vote, but has failed to shrug off the attack of the self-described socialist senator from Vermont.
For her, New York is an opportunity to break his grip on the contest. Latest opinion surveys suggest that Clinton is extending her lead in New York with an NBC 4 New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll putting her 17 percentage points ahead, on 57% to Sanders’ 40%.
But Sanders shows no signs of going away quietly. He came into the debate with wind in his sails, following an epic rally in Washington Square park in Manhattan on Wednesday night, attended by 27,000. He has also won eight of the nine most recent primaries and caucuses, largely in western states, and is proving to be a much more dogged and durable threat to Clinton than she and her advisers ever expected.
Banks provide a familiar battleground
The slugfest opened on familiar territory: Wall Street and what to do to break up the big banks. Clinton said that she would appoint regulators tough enough to ensure that the post-2008 financial crash legislation, Dodd-Frank, was fully implemented.
For Sanders that was not enough. He wanted the banks that were “too big to fail” to be broken up immediately, and he also renewed his attack on Clinton’s money-making speeches to Goldman Sachs.
The former secretary of state in turn swung that back against Sanders by accusing him of failing to release his tax returns. She elicited from him the first big announcement of the night – that he would release his family’s 2014 US tax returns on Friday, and ones for earlier years when his wife Jane had got round to producing them.
Sanders and Clinton then clashed fiercely over guns. “I have spent more time than I care to remember being with people who have lost their loved ones,” Clinton said as she continued to hammer Sanders on a record she thinks is vulnerable. Mothers of victims of gun violence and police shootings have appeared with Clinton at campaign events around the country.
Clinton noted that he voted five times against the Brady Bill, which introduced background checks on gun purchases in the 1990s, and for a bill that still effectively shields gun manufacturers from legal liability. Sanders argued that he was the candidate best suited to address the issue because he comes from a state without control yet supports strengthening certain laws.
The increasingly glaring gulf in the style and form of their politics that has developed as the campaign has unfolded was expressed more sharply than ever before. Sanders talked as though he were infuriated by Clinton’s cautious practicality and her lack of soaring ambition, saying with regard to her plan to combat climate change: “Incrementalism and those little steps are not enough.”
Clinton, by contrast, was dismissive of her rival’s sweeping promises but lack, in her portrayal, of policy content. “Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” she said at one point.
That comment was made with regard to the Middle East and the violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Both candidates gave their fulsome support for Israel and its right to exist, but in tune with the rest of the debate they differed starkly on their overall perspective on the conflict.
Clinton emphasised the pressures put on Israel by Hamas: “I don’t know how you run a country when you are under constant threat, terrorist attack, rockets coming at you.” Sanders, taking the opposite position, highlighted the plight of the Palestinians and what he called the disproportionate response by Israel to rocket attacks.
In one of his most searing attacks of the night, Sanders accused his rival of using racist language when she was first lady in the 1990s. Last week, former president Bill Clinton issued an apology after he drowned out Black Lives Matter protesters at a rally in Philadelphia to defend his wife, who said in 1996 “the kinds of kids that are called super-predators”.
Asked by New York 1’s Errol Louis why Sanders demanded the former president apologize for defending Clinton’s use of “super-predator”, he said: “It was a racist word and everybody knew it was a racist word.”
The debate was held in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where ships were once built from the civil war through to the end of the second world war. The site is just a stone’s throw across the East River from the subject of many of the most volatile arguments on Thursday night – Wall Street and its looming skyscrapers.
Both candidates tried to make much of their connection to the local area. Sanders emphasised that he had been born in Brooklyn – he went to school less than seven miles away from the Navy Yard.
Clinton though leaned on her connection to New York state with more determination, repeating in her opening and closing statements that she was honoured to have served the state for two terms as US senator and that she intended to take “New York values” to the White House.
Clinton also made a sharp intervention about women’s rights. Near the end of the debate, she pointed out that over the course of nine Democratic debates, not one moderator had asked about women’s reproductive rights.
“We’ve had eight debates before, this is our ninth,” Clinton said. “We’ve not had one question about a woman’s right to make their own decisions about reproductive health. Not one question. And in the meantime we have states governors doing everything they can to restrict women’s rights. We have a presidential candidate by the name of Donald Trump saying that women should be punished and we have never asked about this.”
But that was virtually the only mention of Trump and the Republicans in a long, hard debate. For this moment, at least, the energies of the two Democratic candidates are focused entirely on themselves.
Almost immediately afterwards, Sanders was whisked away to the airport for a trip to Rome, Italy and a conference at the Vatican where he will make a speech on the “idolatry of money”, a central theme of his presidential campaign and a moral teaching of the Pope Francis. Clinton moved on to join supporters at a watch party in Brooklyn.
In the post-debate spin room, Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, said he believed the senator had his strongest night yet on foreign policy and thought the debate could mark a turning point for him here in New York. “The race has been moving in our direction and I think it’s going to move further in that way,” Weaver said.
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Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s communications director, said Sanders was noticeably more aggressive during the debate but remained the same on substance.
“We don’t see anything that he did that will change the dynamics of the race,” Palmieri said. She added: “We feel good about New York. We think she will win New York but it’s a competitive primary.”
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