Growing tensions over the future of the Democratic party erupted at its fourth presidential debate on Sunday, as Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clashed over whether Barack Obama should be succeeded with pragmatism or idealism.
After a series of relatively cautious warm-up debates dominated by the former secretary of state, the candidates sparred over radical policy issues much closer to the agenda of Sanders supporters, leaving Clinton on the defensive over healthcare and Wall Street.
“Even when the Democrats were in charge of Congress we could not get the votes to do that,” warned Clinton, after Sanders upstaged his rival shortly before the debate, by releasing detailed proposals of a plan to get employers to pay for Medicare for all Americans.
A notably more aggressive Sanders accused her talking “nonsense” by claiming his plans would roll back the health insurance reforms of Obama.
“We are not going to tear up the Affordable Care Act – I helped write it – but we are going to move on top of that to a Medicare-for-all system,” said the Vermont senator.
“Tell me why we are spending almost three times more than the British, who guarantee healthcare to all of their people, 50% more than the French, more than the Canadians,” he added.
Estimates by Sanders’ experts claimed that getting rid of private insurance would more than compensate for higher taxes.
Sanders also went on the offensive over Wall Street reform, coming close to accusing Clinton of being “corrupted” by $600,000 in annual speaking fees he said she received from Goldman Sachs.
“I don’t take money from big banks, I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs,” said Sanders, to boos from the audience.
He was supported in his attack on Clinton’s ties to Wall Street by an otherwise subdued Martin O’Malley, who interrupted her claim to be the candidate that the bankers fear most with “oh come on” and “that’s not true”.
The one policy area where Clinton pitched herself as the radical alternative – and where Sanders was on the defensive – was gun reform. The issue was especially charged given that the debate was held just a block away from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, where nine Bible students were gunned down last June.
Clinton sought to push home her recent attacks on the Vermont senator, accusing him of voting with the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby on numerous occasions.
She pointedly raised the so-called “Charleston loophole” – which allowed the Emanuel AME shooter to buy a gun when his federal background check was not completed in three days – which Sanders voted for in 1993. (Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, signed it into law, though she did not mention that).
For a candidate whose insurgency-style campaign has benefitted from pushing to the left of his rivals, Sanders found himself uncharacteristically accused of conservatism on guns. He tried to hit back by accusing Clinton of being “disingenuous”.
“I have a D-minus record from the NRA,” he said.
On Saturday night, just 24 hours before the debate, Sanders backed out of his resistance to legislation currently before Congress that would end immunity for firearms manufacturers from lawsuits from victims of gun violence. On stage, he tried to defend his 2005 vote in favor of such immunity by saying it was made out of concern for “small mom-and-pop gunshops”.
Clinton’s position of defending Obama’s record on healthcare and Wall Street reform was also reversed on foreign policy, where the former secretary of state struck a slightly more hawkish tone over how to tackle the Islamic State. Sanders was left defending the president’s more cautious approach.
Bill Clinton was also brought into the debate, courtesy the NBC News moderators. First they asked Hillary Clinton whether Bill would be leant upon for advice on “kitchen table economics”, were she to win the presidency. “It will start at the kitchen table, and we’ll see where it goes from there,” she replied.
She added that she would ask for his “ideas and advice” on economic policy, and use the former president as an “emissary” to travel the country looking for best practice to draw upon.
Then Bill Clinton was invoked again, this time in a question to Sanders in which his previous criticism of the former president’s sexual indiscretions was raised. In an echo of the way in which Republican presidential candidates have turned their ire on debate moderators for puerile questions, Sanders lashed out at Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
He said: “That question annoys me. I cannot walk down the street without being told how much I have to attack Secretary Clinton. I’ve avoided that, trying to run an issue-oriented campaign.”
But he did say of the former president: “Yes, his behavior was deplorable.”
Despite such diversions, the overall tenor of the debate was dominated by discussions of Sanders’ policy proposals – a development that may worry Clinton advisers already made nervous by his momentum in recent polling, just two weeks before voters go to the polls in Iowa.
In the spin room after the debate, senior Clinton aides tested out their new attack line on Sanders – that he is making up policy “on the fly”. The phrase was used with reporters by her campaign chairman, John Podesta, and echoed by the Clinton’s director of communications, Jennifer Palmieri.
“The more scrutiny Sanders gets, people see flaws are exposed. Details matter: you can’t make it up as you go along,” Palmieri said.
Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver rejected the idea that the surprise release of the senator’s healthcare was an example of “policy on the fly”.
“He said he was going to release his plan for healthcare-for-all before the Iowa caucus. We’re having a big debate here tonight, it was a six-page release, plenty of time for experts on the Clinton campaign to handle it.”
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