- Democrats seek edge with minority voters in next contests
- Sanders victory in New Hampshire sets tone for vigorous debate
With the Democratic presidential campaign shifting to more diverse states, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders sharpened their arguments in a debate over pragmatism, leadership and President Barack Obama’s legacy.
Sanders, fresh off a commanding win in New Hampshire, used Thursday night’s debate, hosted by PBS at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, to criticize Clinton’s support from Wall Street, while suggesting that she lacked the bold ideas to combat rising inequality.
For Clinton, whose loss in the Granite State primary raised questions about the vitality of her campaign, the debate offered a chance to turn the page toward a source of past support: the black and Latino voters whose backing helped elect her husband Bill as president. Those two groups will play a far greater role in approaching contests in Nevada and South Carolina.
She faulted the Vermont senator for his past criticism of Obama, saying the president -- who remains popular with minorities and with young voters -- doesn’t “get the credit he deserves.”
Here’s the tale of the tape:
Clinton spent much of the night trying to steer the debate away from what the candidates aspired to do, focusing instead on whether they could deliver on their promises.
The pivot is an important one for Clinton: Sanders has energized crowds with his calls for universal health care, a campaign finance overhaul and taxes that would target the wealthy and powerful. Clinton says she has a greater chance of succeeding on her more pragmatic, less sweeping agenda.
“We have a special obligation to make clear what we stand for, which is why I think we should not make promises we can’t keep,” Clinton said. She added that once she is in the White House, she would have the political capital to see her plans enacted.
“Well, Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” Sanders said.
The moment echoed Obama’s comment during the 2008 campaign that Clinton was “likable enough.” But this time, the comment by Sanders may play well with the young voters and liberals who have fueled the Sanders surge in the early contests.
“This stuff is doable,” Sanders said of his agenda, saying that big changes could happen if “many millions of people demand it.”
"Who in America denies that we have an infrastructure that is crumbling? Roads, bridges, water systems, wastewater plants, who denies that?" said Sanders. He called for raising $100 billion a year for rebuilding by doing “away with the outrageous loopholes that allow profitable multinational corporations to stash billions of dollars in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda.”
After campaign headaches brought on by some prominent female supporters, Clinton deftly fielded a question on the historic nature of her bid to become the first woman elected to the White House.
Reacting to strong support for Sanders from young women, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem said on HBO that they backed the Vermont senator because “the boys are with Bernie.” And former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in President Bill Clinton’s administration, said there’s “a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.”
Asked about Albright’s remark, Clinton said Albright had been making the comment for decades. But Clinton segued into an acknowledgment that Thursday’s debate, moderated by PBS’s Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill, was the first time that women represented a majority on a presidential campaign debate stage.
“We’ll take our progress wherever we can find it,” Clinton said.
Sanders said his campaign was “fighting for every vote we can get,” highlighting his record on abortion rights issues. And, in a subtle nod to his Jewish heritage and socialist policy views, Sanders said his victory “would be of some historical accomplishment as well.”
Clinton said she didn’t want voters to support her because she’s a woman. “I’m asking people to support me because I think I’m the most qualified, experienced and ready person to be the president and the commander-in-chief,” she said.
Even so, the former secretary of state emphasized that she had been a leader on women’s issues and highlighted her endorsement from the prominent abortion-rights groups Planned Parenthood and NARAL.
“We need a leader on women’s issues,” she said. Somebody who, “leads the efforts to protect the hard-fought gains that women have made, that, make no mistake about it, are under tremendous attack.”
Both candidates repeatedly raised issues important to black and Latino voters as they seek support in the South Carolina and Nevada nominating contests.
Clinton complimented Obama’s record on improving race relations and said the Affordable Care Act helped blacks more than any other group.
Sanders said race relations would “absolutely” improve during his presidency because he would address unemployment and underemployment in minority communities.
Making an appeal to South Carolina voters, Clinton said she supported Representative Jim Clyburn’s “10-20-30 proposal” The South Carolina lawmaker has called for sending at least 10 percent of federal development funds to areas where 20 percent or more of the population has lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years. Clyburn, who stayed neutral in 2008, hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate.
Emphasizing a key issue for minority voters, Clinton and Sanders decried ballooning prison populations and pledged a criminal-justice overhaul will be among their top priorities as president.
Both candidates have faced tough questions over a crime bill championed by Bill Clinton that passed in 1994. The legislation included a three-strikes provision on drug crimes, expanded use of the death penalty and lowered to 13 the age at which a juvenile could be tried as an adult. It also expanded the budget for prisons and provided for the salaries of 100,000 new police officers. Sanders voted for the legislation.
On immigration, the differences were sharper. Clinton attacked Sanders for voting against an immigration overhaul in 2007, when Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts crafted a law with President George W. Bush. The late senator is lionized among Democrats.
Sanders defended his vote by saying the law’s guest-worker program under the law was “akin to slavery.” Sanders said Clinton’s record on immigration was tarnished, citing her call in 2014 to deport children fleeing Central America.
"When we saw children coming from these 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.
Clinton has defended her approach, saying it would deter children from taking a dangerous journey to the U.S.
Sanders proved again why the issue of Wall Street support will continue to follow Clinton, who’s been criticized for accepting $675,000 in fees from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and substantial political donations from those linked to the financial services industry.
“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” Sanders said. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge contributions? I guess for the fun of it.”
Under fire over her Wall Street ties, Clinton returned to a familiar defense: embracing Obama. She said the super-political action committee supporting her campaign had originally been created to assist the president. She added that she is “very proud” of the 750,000 donors to her campaign.
Obama “stood up and took on Wall Street,” she said. Taking a swipe at Sanders, Clinton said she and Obama were willing to battle not just the insurance industry, but also the gun lobby.
When Sanders noted that corporate executives involved in the economic collapse hadn’t gone to jail under Obama, Clinton said she has “made it very clear that no bank is too big to fail, no executive too powerful to jail.”
An early discussion of health care allowed Clinton to hit two themes she wanted to promote going into the debate: her support for Obama, and her progressive bona fides.
Clinton said Sanders had made a “promise that cannot be kept” because the numbers in his proposed universal coverage plan don’t add up. She repeatedly invoked “having been in the trenches” on the issue, and described herself as a “staunch supporter of President Obama’s principal accomplishment.”
Sanders dismissed Clinton’s attacks, saying the U.S. pays too much for health care without providing coverage to everyone. No other Western democracy lacks universal health care, he said.
“Health care is a right of all people, not a privilege, and I will fight for that,” Sanders said.
The Vermont senator has acknowledged his program’s costs would be high -- estimating it would carry a $14 trillion price tag over the next decade -- but says the bill could be covered through taxes targeted mostly at the rich.
“I don’t know what economists Secretary Clinton is talking to, but what I have said, and let me repeat it, that yes, the middle -- the family right in the middle of the economy --would pay $500 dollars more in taxes, and get a reduction in their health-care costs of $5,000 dollars,” he said.
Under the Sanders proposal, the top income tax would rise to 52 percent, additional Social Security and Medicare taxes would hit those with income of more than $250,000, and capital gains and dividends would be taxed as regular income. Other tax brackets would increase two percent.
An analysis by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a nonpartisan group, warned that Sanders’s math might not add up. The study said investors may be reluctant to sell investments because of a new tax, and that the senator’s proposed top income tax rate could discourage work. As a result, Sanders’s plan is likely to fall at least $3 trillion short of his own projected costs, it says.