Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debating Thursday night in Brooklyn.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) needed a clear victory in Thursday night’s Democratic presidential debate in order to erase his double-digit deficit in polls keyed to the New York primary. Unless he wins next Tuesday’s Empire State showdown with rival Hillary Clinton, Sanders will have no plausible chance of capturing the nomination.
Did the Vermont senator “obliterate” the former secretary of state, as he pledged to do to Donald Trump in the November general election?
New York Democrats will make that call. But a critical mass of voters will likely agree that Sanders failed to sink Clinton in the battle waged in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Rather than adopting the defensive strategy favored by many front-runners, Clinton regularly took the fight to Sanders and sought to retaliate when he challenged her record and questioned her judgment. Sanders likewise employed aggressive tactics, and the two often continued sparring despite moderators’ attempts to cut them off. Each of the candidates laughed derisively at the other’s comments at various points in the two-hour debate, hosted by CNN and NY1.
As she has throughout the primary, Clinton repeatedly associated herself with President Barack Obama, whose popularity ratings remain high among Democrats. She also cast herself as a realistic progressive, in contrast with Sanders, whom she depicted as an an idealist — strong on rhetoric but weak on policy details and lacking pragmatic political skills.
“When you make proposals, and you’re running for president, you should be held accountable for whether the numbers add up,” Clinton declared. “Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” she said at another point in the debate.
But Sanders did appear to prevail on several points.
Clinton tried to wriggle away as the Vermonter pressed her to say plainly whether she supported increasing Social Security taxes for wealthy Americans. She also dodged his challenge that she release the transcripts of secret speeches made to Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street bank recently fined $5 billion for misleading investors in the run-up to the 2008 financial system meltdown. Sanders also cornered Clinton on the issue of fracking, which she acknowledged supporting on a global basis as secretary of state. And she avoided answering his repeated question of whether she supported a tax on carbon emissions as a means of combating climate change.
Clinton said she favored an array of reforms. And Sanders used that reply to cut to the core of the differences between himself and his opponent: “Incrementalism and those little steps are not enough,” he told her.
But Sanders, for his part, was unable to provide a clear answer when asked to give an example of Clinton’s having demonstrated in her Senate career that she was influenced by Wall Street money. “There is no example,” Clinton triumphantly declared, adding that she had “called out” the financial institutions responsible for the economic devastation arising from subprime mortgage lending.
Sanders offered a pithy, sarcastic sound bite in return: “Secretary Clinton called them out. Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this. And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by speaking engagements?”
Clinton again put the senator from a hunting state on the defensive in regard to gun control. Her attacks on what she described as his pro-gun lobby voting record were likely judged effective by many voters in New York, a state with strong restrictions on access to firearms. Clinton, however, could not parry Sanders’ counter-charge that she had wildly exaggerated the role weapons from Vermont play in violent crimes committed in New York.
A significant portion of the debate was given over to the quandary of Israel and Palestine. Clinton came off as a largely uncritical supporter of Israel — a stand unlikely to hurt her in a primary in which the Jewish vote will be a significant factor. But Sanders, conversely, might be seen as having taken the more politically courageous position in New York by insisting that peace cannot be achieved unless Palestinians are treated with “respect and dignity.”
The two also tussled on the notion of US support for regime change. Clinton defended her advocacy of using US military might to help overthrow Libya’s dictator. And she doubled-down on urging Obama to impose a no-fly zone in Syria.
Sanders took a more cautious position in those cases, warning that “regime change often has unintended consequences.” He pointed to the chaos that has engulfed Libya and referred again to Clinton’s vote to invade Iraq — an action he described as “the worst foreign policy decision in modern history of this country.”
While Sanders may, on balance, have won Thursday’s debate, his performance was probably not sufficiently superior to bring about a victory at the polls next Tuesday.