Clinton Tries Playing Sanders’ Rhetoric But in a Lower Key

Updated on
Clinton: I'm Not Asking For Support Because I’m a Woman
  • Wall Street, economic inequality dominate in Wisconsin debate
  • Two Democrats maneuver for Nevada, South Carolina voters

In the first Democratic debate since her crushing defeat in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton tried a new approach to win back wavering supporters: Capturing Bernie Sanders’ anger without looking angry.

Clinton spent much of debate in Milwaukee appropriating Sanders’ positions in broad strokes, if not in detail, on issues from curbing Wall Street’s influence to righting racial injustice to expanding health care and college access. Sanders long has been calling the economic system “rigged.” On Thursday night, so did Clinton.

Hillary Clinton greets guests after participating in a debate in Milwaukee.
Hillary Clinton greets guests after participating in a debate in Milwaukee.
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

She took on her rival not with the volume and broadsides that have characterized many of her public performances in the first two nominating contests but with a more measured approach aimed at winning back voters who have been gravitating to Sanders.

“I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me,” Clinton said when asked why so many in that crucial voting group are supporting Sanders.

In a year when anger sells, Clinton’s new approach might not work. Much of Sanders’ appeal stems from his ability to channel and amplify voters’ own fury at the U.S. economic system eight years after a crisis in the financial system plunged the country into a deep recession.

Competing With Sanders

Still, her campaign seemed to be betting that the former secretary of state can better persuade voters that she is on their side with a less visceral display. Clinton’s past efforts at competing with Sanders’ anger have backfired, driving women, middle-aged and working-class Americans toward the Vermont senator.

More than that, Clinton delivered the performance of someone who knows the polls show her ahead in upcoming contests in Nevada and South Carolina that she hopes will help her turn the narrative back around and solidify her position heading into the March 1 Super Tuesday contests.

Even as she made efforts to project calm, Clinton swiped at many of Sanders proposals as unrealistic, even dishonest, saying candidates needed to "level" with the American people. While praising Sanders’ passion for reform, she suggested he is a novelty candidate.

“We agree that Wall Street should never be allowed to wreck Main Street again,” Clinton said, adding, “I am not a single- issue candidate, and I do not believe we live in a single-issue country.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Getting testy at one point, Sanders shot back, “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” after Clinton talked about how she could get things done once in office.

Clinton also unveiled a new line of argument against Sanders, saying her campaign was about breaking down barriers for working poor and minorities. It was a not-so-subtle attempt to raise a question about whether Sanders understands the plight of black and Hispanic Americans, who potentially will play significant roles in the next round of contests to decide the Democratic presidential nomination.

She even name-checked one of South Carolina’s most powerful black politicians, Representative James Clyburn, who has not yet endorsed in the race but has a longstanding relationship with Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.

Both candidates made overtures to minority voters with a discussion of racial disparities in the economy and discrimination in hiring, schools and housing.

‘Economy Rigged’

Coming contests in Nevada and South Carolina will test whether Sanders is cutting into her support among Latino and black voters.

At other times, Clinton’s words were almost eerily similar to Sanders’s.

“I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy and for good cause,” Clinton said at the start of the debate. “There aren’t enough good paying jobs especially for young people. And yes the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top."

“We have to do much more to ensure that Wall Street never wrecks Main Street again,” Clinton said.

Embracing Obama

With President Barack Obama still widely popular among Democrats, Clinton and Sanders both sought to embrace his presidency. Clinton even used him as a shield against Sanders’ frequent attacks on her acceptance of donations and speaking fees from Wall Street.

In the 2008 race, Obama “was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever,” Clinton said. “When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street.”

Clinton also tried to separate Sanders from Obama. She chided him for having criticizing Obama’s leadership, something, she said, “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

Sanders called that “a low blow.” 

“Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job,” he said.

The debate didn’t instantly shift the dynamic of the race. On Twitter, the conversations reflected an even-up debate: 50 percent for Clinton, 50 percent for Sanders.

Foreign Policy

The foreign policy portion of the debate triggered some of sharpest exchanges of the night -- and one of the clearest contrasts between Sanders as outsider and Clinton as insider.

Sanders questioned Clinton’s friendship with Henry Kissinger, the former national security adviser and secretary of state under Presidents Nixon and Ford who was involved in conducting the Vietnam War and opening relations with China.

“Henry Kissinger is not my friend," Sanders said. "I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger. Count me in as somebody who will not be listening to Henry Kissinger."

Clinton jabbed back that "journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is."

"Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure," Sanders said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE