Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders debate Sunday night in Flint, Michigan.
Three days after the Republican presidential candidates debated the size of their, um, hands on national television, their Democratic counterparts engaged in a far more substantive affair Sunday night in Flint, Mich.
With an eye toward Tuesday’s hotly contested Michigan primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton lived by the words of the late U.S. House speaker Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.” Both candidates showed up in Flint, a city plagued by a lead-poisoned water crisis, eager to display greater sympathy and resolve.
In his opening statement, Sanders said that what he’d learned about the situation had “literally shattered me.”
“It was beyond belief that children in Flint, Mich., in the United States of America in the year 2016 are being poisoned,” he said. “That is clearly not what this country should be about.”
A moment later, Clinton echoed the sentiment: “Well, I’ll start by saying amen to that.”
For more than 20 minutes, the two mostly agreed with one another: that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder should resign over his office’s response to the crisis, that the federal government could prevent future such calamities by investing in infrastructure and that Flint must not be forgotten once the television cameras pack up and leave.
But when the subject turned to manufacturing and Clinton outlined her plan to prevent outsourcing, Sanders went in for the kill.
“I am very glad, Anderson, that Secretary Clinton discovered religion on this issue, but it’s a little bit too late,” he said, addressing debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN. “Secretary Clinton supported virtually every one of the disastrous trade agreements written by corporate America.”
Clinton quickly swiped back, accusing Sanders of voting against bailing out the auto industry during the 2008 financial crisis. (Sanders actually supported that provision, but he voted against it in a broader bill that also bailed out Wall Street.)
“I voted to save the auto industry,” Clinton said. “He voted against the money that ended up saving the auto industry. I think that is a pretty big difference.”
Then came the moment that Clinton’s supporters hope will define the debate.
“If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy through—” Sanders said, waving his right index finger at Clinton.
“You know—” Clinton interrupted.
“Excuse me,” Sanders snapped, his eyes bulging and his face fierce with anger. “I'm talking.”
The audience erupted.
At least twice more, Sanders made similarly dismissive remarks, prompting Clinton sympathizers to compare the episode to when Rick Lazio, her 2000 Republican Senate opponent, approached her onstage in what was characterized at the time as a bullying manner.
Sanders managed to lighten the mood when Clinton said she would release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks “as long as everybody else does, too.”
“Alright, look, Secretary Clinton wants everybody else to release it,” Sanders said. “Well, I’m your Democratic opponent. I release it. Here it is! There ain’t nothing! I don't give speeches to Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars. You got it?”
Sanders found himself on the defensive later in the night when audience member Gene Kopf, whose daughter was nearly killed last month by a gunman in Kalamazoo, Mich., asked what the candidates would do to prevent gun violence. In her answer, Clinton noted that Sanders voted to provide firearm manufacturers and retailers immunity from lawsuits.
Sanders has at times defended the vote and at times distanced himself from it. On Sunday, he appeared to defend it again.
“If you go to a gun store and you legally purchase a gun and then, three days later, if you go out and start killing people, is the point of this lawsuit to hold the gun shop owner or the manufacturer of that gun liable? If that is the point, I have to tell you I disagree,” he said. “If they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America. I don't agree with that.”
Near the end of the night, the candidates praised themselves for steering clear of the name-calling that characterized last Thursday’s Republican debate.
“You know, we have our differences,” Clinton said. “And we get into vigorous debate about issues, but compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”
“You know, we are, if elected president, going to invest a lot of money into mental health,” he said. “And when you watch these Republican debates, you know why we need to invest in that.”