Sen. Bernie Sanders headed into the final Democratic debate before Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary with somewhere between a 16 and 30 percentage point lead against Hillary Clinton, depending on which cheaply conducted poll with an unprofessionally large margin of error you choose to trust. We’re going to wager that what Sanders has, in spite of the shakiness of the polls, is a significant lead and one that doesn’t appear to be wavering following Clinton’s narrow victory in the Iowa caucuses.
That meant that if Clinton wants to either win the New Hampshire primary, or place above a well-spun bar of expectations (single-digit loss!), she needed to land a number of serious blows against Sanders Thursday night. She did not.
On the issue of whether she is a “progressive”—something Sanders and his campaign have (quite aggressively) questioned in word and tweets—Clinton reiterated the retort she debuted in Wednesday night’s CNN town hall: Since when did you become the “gatekeeper” of progressivism? “Under his definition,” she said, “President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street. Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone. Even the late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone would not fit this definition because he voted for [the Defense of Marriage Act].”
As she is wont to do, Clinton was trying to bang Sanders over the head with President Obama’s popularity among Democrats. Sanders was able to respond in a measured way that reinforced his belief that he does not, in fact, hate President Obama: “We are in much better shape today than we were seven years ago, although my Republican colleagues seem to have forgotten where we were seven years ago. That’s the fact. Do I think President Obama is a progressive? I do. I disagree with him on a number of issues. But I think he’s done an excellent job.”
One of the reasons Sanders did so well was the favorability of the debate subjects during prime viewing time. Several segments in the first hour were devoted to Wall Street, Clinton’s closeness to the financial sector, and her paid speeches to banks like Goldman Sachs, which she delivered, as she said, when she hit the “speaking circuit” following her tour at the State Department.
Clinton, rather than coyly trying to deflect the importance of those speeches, tried to hit Sanders the hardest she has in any debate so far. “I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be,” she said. But now it’s time to get nasty!
Time and time again, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to, you know, anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought. I just absolutely reject that, senator. I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. Enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly. You will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received. I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I’m very proud of that. I think it’s time to end the artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out in recent weeks and let’s talk about the issues that divide us.
Sanders was visibly taken aback by the “artful smear” language. But if she thought this was going to deter him from making the attack any longer? This is Famously On-Message Bernie Sanders, and all she did was present him an opportunity to talk about the corrosive effects of lax campaign-finance regulations that allow corporations to buy the government.
“Let's talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated,” he said. “Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions? Well, some people might think that had some influence.” He continued on with similar examples about the government’s similar acquiescence of pharmaceutical companies and the fossil-fuel industry. “There is a reason why these people are putting huge amounts of money into our political system. In my view, it’s undermining American democracy and allowing Congress to represent wealthy campaign contributors, and not the working families of this country.”
In one of Clinton’s worst moments of the debate—because now, if it already wasn’t, it’s going to hang a cloud over her head—was her response to a question from moderator Chuck Todd about whether she would release the transcripts from all of her paid speeches. She has previously laughed off such questions when approached with them on the rope line. Perhaps she should have prepared a better answer when she was asked about it on live television, because her answer was: “I’ll look into it. I don’t know the status.”
This does not mean that Sanders had a perfect night. The sum total of his foreign policy platform remains Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq war in 2002. In one especially dicey moment, he was asked directly about what his policy in Afghanistan was, and he responded with a line about how he would not send ground troops to Iraq or Syria. On Wall Street, he still does not have an answer for his vote for the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act which deregulated derivatives—he speaks about his support for Glass-Steagall instead, which is a much different issue. (It’s also a questionable attack from Clinton, considering her husband—whose economic and jobs growth record she proudly touts in her stump speech as a credential for her campaign—signed the package that included the CFMA, and in general shepherded through plenty of financial deregulatory measures. But if he can’t answer it, she might as well keep saying it.)
But there was nothing Clinton introduced Thursday night to seriously wound Sanders, and he was able to parry her more occasionally aggressive posture. Sanders needs to maintain his strong New Hampshire lead and hope to use the 11 days following the primary, when he would be the reigning winner, to sway more voters in more diverse states to his side. It’s a tough strategy. But if it doesn’t work out, it won’t be because of his performance Thursday night.