Tale of the Tape: Clinton Takes the Fight to Sanders in Debate

  • Clinton accuses rival of `artful smear' over Wall Street ties
  • Sanders leads polls ahead of New Hampshire Democratic primary

Clinton and Sanders Clash Over Wall Street, Progressivism

Hillary Clinton came looking for a fight.

She accused rival Bernie Sanders of a “very artful smear” with his criticism of her ties to Wall Street and of using innuendo about her acceptance of high-dollar speaking fees. “Enough is enough,” she told Sanders during Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire. “If you’ve got something to say, say it directly.”

But Clinton’s outrage did little to put the issue of her ties to Wall Street to rest five days before the Granite State holds its first-in-the-nation primary.

For Sanders, who entered the debate with a 20-point lead in the state, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll, the event provided a chance to rail against corporate interests and excite liberal supporters who have rallied behind his cause. Sanders also sought to discount questions of his electability and stumbled a bit through rambling answers on national security.

Here’s the tale of the tape:

Money in Politics

Clinton responded most forcefully when Sanders repeatedly raised the issue of her campaign donations and speaking fees from Wall Street, accusing the Vermont senator of “insinuation” and “innuendo.”

“It’s time to end the very artful smear,” Clinton said, drawing a combination of applause, gasps and boos from the crowd at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Clinton invoked President Barack Obama as an example of a “responsible” politician who had taken money from Wall Street, and still pushed to regulate the banks. She said her plan to tackle big banks “takes us further” and had the endorsement of more leading economists than Sanders’s pledge to break up the biggest banks.

Earning cheers in the debate hall, Sanders said “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.”

Sanders has said that as president he would order his Treasury secretary to compile a list of financial firms that are “too big to fail.” He’d then use the Dodd-Frank law to break up those banks.

Whether Sanders could actually deliver on his plan remains a question of debate.

The law permits the Federal Reserve to break up financial institutions deemed “a grave threat to the financial stability of the United States.” But it also requires the backing of the Federal Reserve’s board of governors and then a two-thirds vote by the members of the Financial Stability Oversight Council, a panel that includes all eight major financial regulators and the Treasury secretary. Appointees to the Fed’s Board of Governors serve staggered, 14-year terms, so Sanders would inherit members appointed by Obama.

Clinton has called instead for a “risk fee” on banks with more than $50 billion in assets. She says she would impose broader changes than Sanders by placing new restrictions on “shadow banks,” including hedge funds and high-frequency traders.

“It’s important for everyone to understand I have a record, I stand firm and I will be the person who prevents them from ever wrecking the economy again,” Clinton said.

Defining a Progressive

Clinton also fought back on questions Sanders has raised about her bona fides as a progressive.

Sanders has swiped at Clinton’s vote to authorize the war in Iraq and said she was late to oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada and the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim nations that critics say could lead to the loss of U.S. jobs.

Clinton said that by Sanders’s definition, nobody could be a progressive -- a term that resonates with the party’s liberal wing just as “conservative” does with hard-line Republicans. She said Obama accepted donations from Wall Street, and New Hampshire’s Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen has backed the trade bill.

"Let’s not be, in an unfair way, making an accusation or making an attack about where I stand and where I always stood," Clinton said, adding that she had "the scars to prove" her devotion to the progressive cause.

"If we’re going to get into labels, I don’t think it was particularly progressive to vote against the Brady Bill five times," she said referring to Sanders’s record on gun-control legislation.

Sanders appeared to shy away from the fight, saying he wasn’t interested in “arguing about definitions.” But as Clinton continued to criticize him as a “self-proclaimed gatekeeper” of progressivism, Sanders responded by saying he “walked the walk.”

When Sanders said he didn’t have a super-political action committee or take “huge sums of money,” the audience cheered.

Wall Street Regulation

Clinton also came prepared to discuss the controversy over speaking fees she collected after her tenure as secretary of state, but her penchant for privacy may have undercut an otherwise successful defense.

Clinton has come under criticism for her paid speeches, which carried a minimum $200,000 fee after she left the Obama administration.

Clinton herself raised the hot-button issue of why she accepted $675,000 in fees from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to deliver three speeches. She said she never changed a view or a vote based on money from supporters.

In addition to Wall Street firms, corporations and trade groups, Clinton was paid to speak at public universities, a practice her critics have cited during discussions of rising tuition rates. Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, together earned about $25 million for delivering more than 100 speeches since the beginning of 2014, according to federal disclosure documents.

But while Clinton’s fiery defense played well, she stumbled when moderator Chuck Todd asked if she would be willing to release the transcripts of those speeches.

"I will look into it," Clinton said.

Sanders said the notion that politicians aren’t swayed by the money they receive is naive. He said banking regulations were reduced during the 1990s as the industry spent “billions” in Washington.

“There is a reason these people are putting huge amounts of money in our political system,” he said.

Foreign Policy

As the debate shifted to foreign policy, the former top U.S. diplomat appeared on firmer footing.

Clinton said there were questions that “needed to be answered” about whether Sanders was prepared to tackle world crises, saying “you’ve got to be ready on Day One.”

She spoke of an “arc of instability” across the Middle East, and criticized Sanders for suggesting he would seek warmer relations with Iran. As she often does, she brought up her role in helping plan the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

“I fully, fully concede that Secretary Clinton, who was secretary of state for four years, has more experience in foreign affairs,” Sanders said.

But the Vermont senator, as he often does, mentioned Clinton’s vote as a senator for the Iraq war during President George W. Bush’s administration, and said Clinton had criticized Obama for being “naive” on foreign policy in 2007, when she was running against him for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But when asked to rank which nations posed the greatest threat to the U.S., Sanders provided a meandering answer.

“Russia lives in the world. China lives in the world. North Korea is a very, very strange country because it is so isolated,” he said.

Clinton’s E-Mails

Voters don’t have to worry about the outcome of an FBI investigation examining Clinton’s e-mails at the State Department, the former secretary of state said, adding she guarantees it, "100 percent."

Clinton said the issue was cooked up by Republicans, and amounts to nothing. 

Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server as the top U.S. diplomat is under renewed scrutiny after the State Department last week withheld from public release 22 e-mails she sent or received because they contained information classified as “Top Secret." 

Her campaign has said the content of the e-mails isn’t sensitive, wasn’t marked as classified when she sent or received it, and should be made public. Some of the e-mails reportedly referred to the CIA’s drone program, which is commonly known but classified, as well as indirect references to intelligence officers.

While Clinton said the arrangement was simply a matter of convenience, critics say she may have been attempting to prevent the retention of some records and that she risked national security by using an non-governmental server.

Sanders, who in recent days has said the e-mails are a "very serious issue," passed when given the opportunity to criticize her over the issue during the debate. He joked that he wouldn’t curse -- as he did in an earlier debate -- to emphasize how little he cares about her "darn e-mails.”