Sen. Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton debate Thursday night in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
With the heavily white states of Iowa and New Hampshire behind them, the leading rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination shifted gears Thursday night and spoke to the more diverse electorates they'll face in Nevada and South Carolina.
During a PBS debate in Milwaukee, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton competed over who could more effectively reform the nation's immigration and criminal justice systems. Both went out of their way to address the contaminated-water crisis plaguing Flint, Michigan, whose population is majority African-American. And they praised President Barack Obama, who remains an enormously popular figure among South Carolina Democrats.
But on the question of who would be a worthier successor to Obama, fissures quickly emerged. While Clinton characterized herself as the incumbent's rightful heir, Sanders pledged to go further than the president has.
Asked by moderator Judy Woodruff whether they would do more than Obama to improve race relations, Clinton challenged the very premise of the question.
"I think, under President Obama, we have seen a lot of advances," she said, arguing that the country's first black president had "set a great example."
Sanders, on the other hand, claimed that he would "absolutely" improve race relations — by raising taxes on the wealthy and investing that revenue in jobs and education.
"I think when you give low-income kids — African American, white, Latino kids — the opportunities to get their lives together, they are not going to end up in jail," he said. "They’re going to end up in the productive economy, which is where we want them."
Asked about Obama's move to shield 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation, Sanders again promised to go further. Calling himself "somebody who is very fond of the president," the senator said he nevertheless opposed the administration's crackdown last month on Central American families living illegally in the country. He was quick to criticize Clinton for her response to the situation.
"If my memory is correct, I think when we saw children coming from these horrendous, horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country," Sanders said. "That was not, as I understand it, the secretary’s position."
Clinton came armed with her own opposition research on the subject. She dinged Sanders for opposing a 2007 immigration reform bill, noting that it was drafted by the Senate's late liberal lion, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
"I think Ted Kennedy had a very clear idea about what needed to be done," she said. "And I was proud to stand with him and support it."
Sanders defended his vote, arguing that the Southern Poverty Law Center and other groups had compared a guest-worker provision included in the bill to "slavery."
"When you have one of the large Latino organizations in America saying 'vote no,' and you have the AFL-CIO saying 'vote no,' and you have leading progressive Democrats, in fact, voting no, I don’t apologize for that vote," Sanders said.
"Today Sen. Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test. And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama," Clinton said. "In the past, he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment. He wrote a forward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy."
Sanders didn't take kindly to the allegation.
"Madam Secretary, that is a low blow," he said, countering that while he had "voiced criticisms" of the president, he considered himself "a strong ally with him on virtually every issue."
And, he pointed out, "One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate."
Thursday’s debate was their first since Sanders clobbered Clinton in Tuesday’s New Hampshire Democratic primary, and its tone was strikingly different from their engagement last week at the University of New Hampshire. Clinton gave a far more subdued, measured and cerebral performance than she did a week ago, but Sanders’ aggressive stance remained unchanged.
When Clinton pledged to enact a bold agenda “once I’m in the White House,” Sanders pounced.
“Well, Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” he said, with perhaps a touch too much ice in his voice.
Sanders has grown more comfortable on the debate stage since his first appearances last fall, but he continues to forget that his gestures and expressions remain visible to the viewer when he’s not speaking. Throughout Thursday’s debate, the camera caught him with an exasperated look on his face as he signaled to debate moderators with a wagging finger that he hoped to respond to Clinton’s charges.
The former secretary of state came into the debate with a clear mission: to paint herself as equally progressive as Sanders but more in tune with reality. She argued that his platform “would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40 percent,” and she repeatedly said that he should “level” with voters about his ambitious health-care reform agenda.
“Every progressive economist who has analyzed that says that the numbers don’t add up and that’s a promise that cannot be kept,” she said.
Sanders struck back at her suggestion that he would “dismantle” the Affordable Care Act and other popular programs.
“I have fought my entire life to make sure that health care is a right for all people,” he said. “We’re not going to dismantle anything.”
As she has throughout the campaign, Clinton excelled when the focus shifted to foreign affairs, but Sanders sounded somewhat more prepared than he has in the past. He also managed to initiate a spirited dialogue about her relationship with Henry Kissinger, the highly controversial former secretary of state, whom she name-dropped in last week’s debate and in her most recent book, “Hard Choices.”
“Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country,” Sanders said. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend. I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.”
Clinton was ready with a jab of her own.
“Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is,” she said.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger,” Sanders shot back. “That’s for sure.”