On January 27, 2016

Sanders, Clinton neck and neck

Photo courtesy Bernie Sanders campaign

Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke to demonstrators pushing for a $15 minimum wage outside the site of the debate Sunday.

By Jasper Craven, VTDigger.org

Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton went toe-to-toe Sunday night, Jan. 17, sniping at one another, swapping allegations and sparring over health care and the economy in their final debate before Democratic Party voters head to the polls in just a few weeks.

The debate was contentious, with the two candidates, neck and neck in the polls, trading charges, at times talking and shouting over one another.

Sanders criticized Clinton for being disingenuous or too moderate. He reminded the audience that while Clinton has promoted Wall Street reform, she also collected $600,000 in speaking fees from the behemoth investment firm Goldman Sachs in a single year. He dismissed her breakdown of his recently unveiled health care reform plan as nothing but “a Republican criticism.”

Clinton painted Sanders as being too radical, a flip-flopper on key issues including gun control, while she accused him of wanting to dismantle Obamacare, a charge the Vermont senator called “ridiculous.” He noted he helped craft the legislation and has fought his entire political career for a publicly funded universal health care system. He said he also wants to build on the existing Affordable Care Act, but noted that his dreams for its reach are greater than Clinton’s.

The most recent polls have Sanders and Clinton in a dead heat in Iowa and Sanders with the lead in New Hampshire, the first two contested states.

The Sunday debate was held in South Carolina, whose Democratic primary is Feb. 27, a few weeks after New Hampshire and will be a key test for Sanders because of the state’s diverse population.

During the debate, Sanders issued some of his strongest criticisms of Clinton. He appeared more confident, animated and better prepared than in some of the three previous debates. At one point, he noted how far his campaign had come, starting with 3 percent support. A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times went behind the curtain of the Clinton campaign where insiders revealed the former Secretary of State and her campaign, including former President Bill Clinton, had woefully underestimated Sanders’ appeal.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, far behind in the polls, tried to portray himself as the reasonable moderate between the two.

In general, Clinton tried to undercut Sanders’ populist support by noting the cost of some of his ideas and she portrayed herself as a pragmatist. Sanders portrayed Clinton as classic politician in a corrupt system who is beholden to big-money interests.

Their most contentious back and forth came on health care reform and the issue, and the argument, provided the best window into which part of the Democratic Party each candidate represents.

Clinton deeply defended and promoted the policies of President Barack Obama, particularly the expansion of coverage that came after passage of the Affordable Care Act. She also defended the president’s policies on Wall Street financial reform and gun control.

“We finally have a path to universal health care, we’ve accomplished so much already,” Clinton said. “I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t want to see us start over again with a contentious debate.”

“I want us to defend and build on the Affordable Care Act,” Clinton continued, “and improve it.”

Clinton claimed Sanders’ health care reform efforts would reopen a bruising political discussion. Sanders insisted he had no intention of undoing the progress that had been made, but noted there were still 29 million Americans without health coverage. He characterized Obamacare as a decent stand-in for his much more comprehensive system.

“What this is really about is not the rational way to go forward,” Sanders said. “It is whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money, and the pharmaceutical industry.”

Both Clinton and Sanders tried to align themselves with past presidents they praised as progressives, particularly Harry Truman, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt.

“The Democratic Party and the United States worked since Harry Truman to get the Affordable Care Act passed,” Clinton said at one point in defense of Obamacare.

“The vision from FDR and Harry Truman was health care for all people as a right in a cost-effective way,” Sanders later countered.

Clinton’s biggest attack on Sanders came over gun control and she accused the senator of changing his position. She listed his pro-firearm votes throughout his career before jabbing him for an apparent recent policy shift to wanting more controls.

“He voted to let guns go onto the Amtrak, guns go into national parks. He voted against doing research to figure out how we can save lives,” Clinton said. “Let’s not forget what this is about — 90 people a day die from gun violence in our country.”

Sanders called the Clinton attacks “very disingenuous.” He noted with pride his D- rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA).

In the second half of the debate, the focus shifted to foreign policy, where Sanders has appeared weaker in past debates. However, the atmosphere was less charged than the last debate when there had been a recent terror attack.

As in past debates, Clinton outshone Sanders on foreign policy questions, providing detailed answers and nuances, the product of her years as secretary of state.

She spoke about her personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the forces in play around the Islamic State and mentioned intricacies surrounding sectarian violence in other parts of the Middle East. “I think as commander in chief you’ve got to constantly be evaluating the decisions you have to make,” Clinton said. “I know a little about this, having spent many hours in the situation room advising President Obama.”

Sanders reiterated his slightly simpler position: that the “immediate task” was to defeat ISIS, and enlist countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to lead a military offensive on the ground in Syria. “They have got to start putting in some skin in the game and not just ask the United States to do it,” Sanders said.

On a number of other issues, including ¥the environment, criminal justice and opiate abuse, there was little difference on concern and the approach between Clinton and Sanders.

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