NEW YORK – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders turned their debate Thursday night into the rhetorical equivalent of a New York street brawl, tearing into each other over everything from their judgment – or lack thereof – to 20-year-old crime legislation to gun control to the environment.
Meeting on stage for the ninth time in a campaign that has become increasingly heated as next Tuesday’s New York primary approaches, the two Democratic candidates for president dropped all pretense of cordiality.
Right from the start, Sanders – the insurgent progressive senator from Vermont – and Clinton – the policy-wonk, experience-counts candidate who represented New York in the Senate – yelled and shouted and talked over each other. Sanders, who needs to start racking up big wins in big states like New York to eat into Clinton’s delegate lead, began with his signature issues of Wall Street reform and political reform.
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And when asked if Clinton was qualified to be president, he said yes – but that she doesn’t have the judgment to do the job well.
Citing her support for the Iraq War, Sanders said: “I don’t believe that that is the kind of judgment we need to be the kind of president we need.”
In response, Clinton cited an interview Sanders did with the New York Daily News editorial board in which he struggled to explain his views in detail.
“Talk about judgment, and talk about the kinds of problems he had answering questions about even his core issues, breaking up the banks,” Clinton said. “He could not explain how that was to be done.”
Exchanging contemptuous glances throughout, the candidates then moved on to some key issues that have been at the center of their race in New York.
Sanders has increasingly criticized a 1994 crime bill pushed into law by Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton. And on Thursday, he unleashed his harshest attack yet on Hillary Clinton, who defended that law 20 years ago by saying it cracked down on “super-predators.”
Super-predators “was a racist term,” Sanders said. “Everybody knew it was a racist term.”
Clinton – who has apologized for using that term – then apologized for the excess sentences that she said some received under the crime bill.
“I’m sorry for the consequences that are unintended, and have had a very unfortunate impact on people’s lives. I’ve seen the results,” she said. “I want to focus the attention of our country, and to make the changes we need to make. I want white people to recognize that there is systemic racism.”
Turning the tables, Clinton aggressively attacked Sanders on the issue of gun control.
Noting that Sanders favored a bill that protected the gun industry from lawsuits, she said Sanders also “made a commitment to the NRA” to be against waiting periods for gun purchases. From there, she went on to call the Vermont senator “a reliable supporter” of the National Rifle Association.
The debate on gun control started when Clinton was asked if she was being unfair in citing per capita figures for gun imports from Vermont to New York. That question made Sanders laugh – which prompted Clinton to reply: “This is not a laughing matter.”
Sanders found himself on the defensive as well on the issues of releasing his income tax returns.
He said he would release his 2014 tax returns on Friday, while seeming to blame his wife, Jane, for not releasing returns from earlier years, as Clinton has done.
“Jane does ’em,” Sanders said of his tax returns, noting that both he and his wife have been busy campaigning. “We will get ’em out very shortly,” he said.
Similarly, Clinton found herself under pressure for not releasing the paid speeches she gave on Wall Street between 2013 and the start of her campaign last year.
“When everybody does it, I’ll do it,” she said.
That prompted Sanders to note that he had already released all of his Wall Street speeches – because there were none.
A similarly sharp exchange took place on environmental issues, as Sanders tore into Clinton for supporting the controversial natural gas extraction method called “fracking” overseas when she was secretary of state.
“She worked to expand fracking around the world,” Sanders said, speaking in a state whose governor has banned the gas-drilling practice.
Clinton replied not by using the word “fracking,” but instead by saying she saw natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that’s cleaner than coal and that countries can rely on while moving toward green energy.
The debate came five days before the most high-profile New York primary in decades, which is a chance for Clinton to reclaim the momentum from Sanders, who has won eight of the last nine contests in the race.
Clinton, however, has a big lead in delegates, garnering 1,776 out of the 2,383 needed for the nomination. Sanders, meanwhile, trails with 1,118, largely because of Clinton’s big lead among the party leaders known as “super delegates.”
The New York primary offers Clinton – who represented the state in the U.S. Senate for eight years – a chance to build her lead. Conversely, Sanders hopes for an upset that will show super delegates that his momentum just won’t stop.
Polls show that the race has tightened, but Clinton’s lead remains substantial. The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Clinton with a 13.8-point lead, and a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll released Thursday showed her with a 17-point lead.
The two candidates battled on Thursday, though, as if the race were close and hugely important.
But beyond the jabs and the shouting matches, some consistent themes – and consistent differences – came through.
Sanders, as he has since the start of the campaign, portrayed himself as the idealist in the race.
“The reason our campaign has done so well ... is that we’re telling the American people the truth,” he said, adding that he is “determined to end a rigged economy.”
He called Clinton “an incrementalist” on energy issues, and she seemed to wear that badge proudly on issue after issue, portraying herself as a pragmatist who gets things done.
Clinton said Sanders, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of track record.
“It’s easy to diagnose the problem,” she said, in a barely veiled allusion to her opponent. “It’s harder to do something about the problem.”