Foreign affairs took on unusual prominence Thursday evening as Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state, sought to underscore her experience to be commander in chief and Sen. Bernie Sanders excoriated her judgment on Libya and Iraq.
MILWAUKEE — Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her double-digit defeat in the New Hampshire primary, repeatedly challenged Sen. Bernie Sanders’ trillion-dollar policy plans at their presidential debate Thursday night and portrayed him as a big talker who needed to “level” with voters about the difficulty of accomplishing his agenda.
Foreign affairs also took on unusual prominence as Clinton, a former secretary of state, sought to underscore her experience to be commander in chief and Sanders excoriated her judgment on Libya and Iraq, as well as her previous praise of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Clinton also was frequently on the offensive, seizing an opportunity to talk about leaders she admired and turning it against Sanders by bashing his past criticisms of President Obama, a remark Sanders called a “low blow.”
With tensions between the two Democrats becoming increasingly obvious, the debate was full of new lines of attack from Clinton, who faces pressure to puncture Sanders’ growing popularity before the next nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina. She is wagering that even voters excited by Sanders’ inspiring message will reconsider their support when they learn of his lack of experience in foreign policy and his vague explanations for how he will pay for his expansive government programs.
Clinton pounced from the start, after Sanders demurred in saying how much his proposals would increase the size of the federal government. She said that by economists’ estimates, the government would grow 40 percent under Sanders. She appeared to try to get under his skin by implying that he had not been transparent about the cost of his programs, such as his proposed expansion of government health care.
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“This is not about math — this is about people’s lives, and we should level with the American people,” Clinton said. “Every progressive economist who has analyzed that say the numbers don’t add up.” She then repeated a jab at Sanders’ reputation as a truth-teller that she would return to during the debate: “We should level with the American people about what we can do to get quality affordable health care.”
“I don’t know what economists Secretary Clinton is talking to,” Sanders responded, insisting families could come out with savings. “That is absolutely inaccurate.”
Sanders, who has exuded confidence since his New Hampshire win, raising more than $6 million in the 24 hours after the polls closed there, was more pointed and even belittling of Clinton at points. He said that some of her attacks were wrongheaded, and he was dismissive after Clinton talked about her plans to increase federal spending by about $100 billion a year. After Clinton responded to a question by saying, “once I’m in the White House,” he began his next answer by saying, “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” drawing some murmurs and jeers.
The candidates had one of their sharpest exchanges of the race when the moderators of the debate asked them what is typically a softball question: which leaders they admire.
Sanders said Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, while Clinton said Nelson Mandela — and then used the question to berate her opponent over his complaints about Obama over the years.
“The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president, I expect from Republicans,” she said. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination.”
Sanders called the comment a “low blow” and said that while he disagreed with Obama on occasion in the Senate, the president was a friend.
“One of us ran against Barack Obama,” he fired back at Clinton. “I was not that candidate.”
The PBS debate, the sixth of the Democratic race but only the second to include just Clinton and Sanders, came at a moment of rising concern among Democrats about the strength of Clinton’s candidacy and the electability of Sanders if he becomes the Democratic nominee.
Clinton fared poorly among key parts of the Democratic electorate in the New Hampshire primary, losing a majority of the women who voted, as well as young people, who expressed mistrust of her. As for Sanders, some Democrats believe he is too liberal and his proposed tax increases too toxic to win a general election.
Clinton’s critique of Sanders was part of a new calculation by her campaign that the debate format, in which Clinton excels, was the best way to draw attention to Sanders’ record and his minimal expertise in foreign policy. The role of commander in chief became another flash point Thursday, when Sanders argued that his judgment was better than Clinton’s, and more important than her experience. He criticized Clinton’s 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq, her push to oust Moammar Gadhafi in Libya and her consulting of Kissinger.
“I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said, adding that Kissinger had enabled genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot.
Clinton turned the exchange back on him, noting that he has sidestepped requests to identify his own foreign-policy advisers.
“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger,” Sanders snapped.
Sanders said the U.S.-led NATO coalition that toppled Gadhafi — and that Clinton had encouraged the White House to support — had made the region more dangerous. “What happened is a political vacuum developed,” he said. “ISIS came in and now occupies significant territory,” he said, referring to the Islamic State group.
Clinton mentioned her experience advising Obama on the raid in Pakistan that captured and killed Osama bin Laden to prove her judgment was sound. “It was a hard choice,” she said. “I’m proud that I gave him that advice, and I’m very grateful to the brave Navy SEALs who carried out that mission.”
The two also battled over their fundraising models, with Clinton fighting criticism that she is reliant on big donations. She distanced herself from Priorities USA Action, the super PAC supporting her candidacy, and noted that she had more than 750,000 donors who mostly gave small contributions. Sanders, in turn, said his network of small online donors “has blown me away.”
Clinton again evoked Obama in an attempt to defend herself against Sanders’ accusations that she had been influenced by major Wall Street donors. Noting that Obama had collected abundant Wall Street contributions, she added: “When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street.”
Throughout the debate, Sanders, who is seeking to appeal to racially diverse voters in Nevada and South Carolina, demonstrated little capacity to broaden his political message in compelling new directions beyond overhauling the economy, campaign finance and health care.
While he noted that his Medicare-for-all program would save the average middle-class family $5,000 a year, he did not present his vision in any new way or frame the issue in personal terms for average voters. Instead, he stuck to the familiar themes of his stump speech, blasting America’s “rigged economy” and calling for a “political revolution.”
Several of Clinton’s answers reflected an urgent political imperative: maintain and energize her deep support among minority voters to offset Sanders’ popularity with young people, liberals and some working-class white voters. Sanders won support from 83 percent of New Hampshire voters ages 18 to 29, and 60 percent of the liberal base there, according to exit polls, while Clinton did best with older and wealthier voters.
Whither women voters?
Asked about exit polls in New Hampshire that showed women supporting Sanders, rather than getting behind a candidate who could be the first female president, Clinton said, “I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure women are empowered to make their own choices, even if that choice is not to vote for me.”
She pointed out how many women were on the stage, with Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff of PBS “NewsHour” moderating. “We’ll take our progress wherever we can find it,” Clinton said.
She also pointed to her endorsements from abortion-rights women’s health groups such as Planned Parenthood as evidence that she was deemed the superior candidate on health issues that are important to women.
Sanders declined to take the bait, instead training his fire on Republicans, whom he accused of hypocrisy when it comes to government’s role. “By the way,” he said, “when it comes to a woman having to make a very personal choice, ah, in that case, my Republican colleagues love the government and want the government to make that choice for every woman in America.”
Appeals to black voters
Clinton remained out of public sight after the resounding loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, but her campaign whirred into action. Campaign officials announced a slew of new endorsements among African-American leaders and deployed them in an aggressive campaign to discredit Sanders’s record on civil-rights issues important to African-American voters.
The latest effort came Thursday, when the Congressional Black Caucus PAC endorsed Clinton. At the Capitol Hill event, renowned civil-rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia harshly criticized Sanders and discounted the senator’s civil-rights activism in the 1960s.
“I never saw him. I never met him,” Lewis said. “I was chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee for three years, 1963 to 1966. … I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.”