Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) brought his most dominant performance yet to his fourth presidential debate with former secretary of state Hillary Clinton Sunday night in Charleston, S.C.
With two weeks remaining before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton tried her best to portray Sanders as a slippery politician, whose half-baked platform would roll back the successes of the Obama administration and raise taxes on middle-class families. But by keeping the focus on Sanders' record and agenda, Clinton provided her opponent an opening to speak to the Democratic Party's progressive base — and characterize her as a craven opportunist, willing to say anything to win an election.
"I am disappointed that Secretary Clinton's campaign has made this criticism," Sanders said of her allegation that his health care plan would hurt working families. "It's a Republican criticism. Secretary Clinton does know a lot about health care. And she understands, I believe, that a Medicaid-for-all, single-payer program will substantially lower the cost of health care for middle class families."
The two candidates appeared at times to be speaking to different audiences — Sanders to disaffected liberals disappointed in President Obama's inability to fully implement his agenda and Clinton to those who feared that a Republican successor would wipe away his accomplishments.
"The Democratic Party in the United States worked since Harry Truman to get the Affordable Care Act passed," Clinton said of Obama's signature policy success. "I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it. And I don’t wanna see us start over again with a contentious debate."
Their opposite approaches were thrown into sharp relief 50 minutes into the two-hour debate, when moderator Lester Holt of NBC News asked how they would differ in regulating Wall Street.
"Well, the first difference is, I don't take money from big banks," Sanders said, digging a knife into his opponent's back. "I don't get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs."
Summoning the populist spirit of the 26th president, Sanders suggested that if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today, "'What he would say is, 'These guys are too powerful. Break them up!'"
Clinton preferred to wrap herself in the mantle of a different president: the one who defeated her eight years earlier and then hired her to be his secretary of state. That president, she argued, had enacted "one of the most important" financial reforms since the 1930s — and she, not Sanders, was his rightful heir.
"He's criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street — and President Obama has led our country out of the great recession," Clinton said. "Sen. Sanders called him 'weak,' 'disappointing.' He even, in 2011, publicly sought someone to run in a primary against President Obama."
Clinton's robust defense of the man she was seeking to replace drew sustained applause from the party loyalists seated in the Gaillard Center. But out on the campaign trail, Sanders has erased her leads in Iowa and New Hampshire and unnerved a campaign that had long seen itself as unbeatable.
Sanders basked in his success Sunday night, appearing almost overconfident at times. Asked why he hadn't cut into Clinton's lead with nonwhite voters, he focused on the horse race instead of articulating an argument for why they should support him over her.
"Well, let me talk about polling," he began. "As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me. We were all of 3 percentage points. Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, this race is very, very close."
Once African Americans and Hispanics became more familiar with his record and agenda, he argued, they, too, would come around.
"We have the momentum," he said. "We're on a path to victory."
Clinton’s campaign spent much of the previous week seeking to arrest that momentum by focusing its fire on Sanders’ health care plan — and the financing details he had yet to disclose. Less than two and a half hours before the debate, Sanders finally released the plan, along with an analysis performed by a leading health care economist.
The eight-page proposal was light on the details, but Sanders’ campaign claimed it would save $6 trillion over the next 10 years. It would impose a 2.2 percent income-based “premium” on taxpayers, a 6.2 percent payroll tax on employers and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Clinton and debate moderator Andrea Mitchell of NBC News sounded equally annoyed by the pre-debate news dump, and the former insinuated that Sanders had adjusted it in response to her attacks.
“I have to say I’m not sure whether we’re talking about the plan you just introduced tonight or we’re talking about the plan you introduced nine times in the Congress,” Clinton said.
She was quick to characterize herself as the true champion of health care reform, highlighting the expertise she had gained during the first Clinton administration.
“I certainly respect Sen. Sanders’ intentions,” she said. “But when you’re talking about health care, the details really matter.”
Sanders appeared eager to rebuke Clinton for her campaign’s suggestion last week that he would dismantle the Affordable Care Act and other popular health care programs.
“That is nonsense,” he said, noting that he voted for the bill and served on the Senate committee that helped write it. “What a Medicare-for-all program does is finally provide in this country health care for every man, woman and child as a right.”
Clinton gave no quarter, saying that while “there are things we can do to improve” the ACA, “to tear it up and start over again — pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate — I think, is the wrong direction.”
“No one’s tearing this up,” Sanders said. “We’re gonna go forward.”
Vermont’s own tortured debate over universal health care came up when Mitchell noted that, “Vermont walked away from this kind of idea of Medicare-for-all, single-payer because they concluded it required major tax increases — and, by some estimates, it would double the budget.”
“If you couldn’t sell it in Vermont, how can you sell it to the country?” she asked.
With an icy look, Sanders suggested that Mitchell “ask the governor of the state of Vermont,” Peter Shumlin, who spent last week campaigning for Clinton in Iowa.
“I’m not the governor,” Sanders said. “I’m the senator from the State of Vermont.”
The Charleston debate featured a third participant, Martin O’Malley, but the former Maryland governor struggled to find purchase. He spoke for half as long as either of his two opponents, and his most memorable moment came as he nearly begged Holt for a chance to join the scrum.
“Just 10 seconds?” O”Malley asked.
Holt ignored him and cut to a commercial.
Clinton’s strongest moment came early in the debate as she kept up her long-running attack on Sanders’ gun-control record. The night before they took the stage in Charleston, a Sanders spokesman announced that the candidate had fully withdrawn his support for shielding gun manufacturers from lawsuits.
“I am pleased to hear that Sen. Sanders has reversed his position on immunity,” Clinton said Sunday. “And I look forward to him joining with those members of Congress who have already introduced legislation.”
For his part, Sanders called Clinton’s hits “very disingenuous.” He highlighted his D-minus voting record from the National Rifle Association and argued that he lost his 1988 congressional race, in part, due to his opposition to assault weapons. He declined to mention that he won his 1990 race after Republican incumbent Peter Smith embraced an assault-weapons ban, drawing the wrath of Vermont gun owners.
Clinton came loaded for bear.
“He has voted with the N.R.A., with the gun lobby, numerous times,” she said of Sanders. “He voted against the Brady bill five times. He voted for what we call the Charleston loophole. He voted for immunity from gun makers and sellers, which the N.R.A. said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years. He voted to let guns go onto Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives.”
Referring to last year’s shooting massacre at the nearby Emmanuel AME Church, Clinton said, “Let’s not forget what this is about: Ninety people a day die from gun violence in our country. That’s 33,000 people a year. One of the most horrific examples [took place] not a block from here, where we had nine people murdered.”
In previous debates, Clinton has outperformed Sanders when the subject has turned to terrorism and foreign affairs. But much of Sunday’s session focused on domestic polices — right in Sanders’ wheelhouse. By the time the moderators quizzed them on the Iranian nuclear deal and the Syrian civil war, the candidates had already set off most of their firecrackers.
In a low-energy exchange, Sanders continued to tie Clinton to her vote for the Iraq War, and Clinton did her best to name-drop her former boss.
“I think as commander in chief, you’ve got to constantly be evaluating the decisions you have to make,” she said. “I know a little bit about this, having spent many hours in the situation room, advising President Obama.”
One of the more comical moments of the debate came when Holt queried Clinton on her relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Well, my relationship with him – uh, it’s, it’s, um, it’s interesting,” she said, struggling to keep a straight face. “It’s one, I think, of — respect. We’ve had some very tough dealings with one another. And I know that he’s someone that you have to continually stand up to because, like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can, unless you do.”
In what has become an unavoidable feature of the Democratic debates, Holt asked Clinton what role her husband, former president Bill Clinton, would play in a second Clinton administration.
“Well, it’ll start at the kitchen table,” she deadpanned. “We’ll see how it goes from there.”
Mitchell also asked Sanders about Bill Clinton — questioning whether he regretted saying that the former president’s sexual transgressions were “totally disgraceful and unacceptable.”
Sanders used the opportunity to criticize the media’s focus on petty squabbles.
“Andrea, that question annoys me,” he said. “I cannot walk down the street — Secretary Clinton knows this — without being told how much I have to attack secretary Clinton. Wanna get me on the front pages of the paper? I make some vicious attack. I have avoided doing that, trying to run an issue-oriented campaign.”
He continued: “We’ve been through this. Yes, his behavior was deplorable. Have I ever once said a word about that issue? No, I have not. I’m gonna debate secretary Clinton, Gov. O’Malley on the issues facing the American people — not Bill Clinton’s personal behavior.”