The gloves have come off in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders engaged in the first hand-to-hand combat of the Democratic presidential primary in New Hampshire Thursday night, directly challenging one another on everything from Wall Street, corruption, foreign policy and the very definition of what it means to be a progressive Democrat.
The hottest disagreement came during an exchange over the influence of money in politics, which Sanders has brought to the center of the Democratic Party’s debate and an inflamed the party’s base, who are angry about corruption in Washington.
Sanders pointed forcefully to Wall Street donations to Clinton’s campaign and speaking fees before she began her presidential run. “What being part of the Establishment is in the last quarter is having a super PAC that raised $15 million from Wall Street and throughout your life raised a whole lot of money from Wall Street and special interests,” Sanders said. “Our campaign is a campaign by the people, fore the people. Secretary Clinton does represent the Establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary people.”
Clinton then turned directly to Sanders and reminded him that he pledged to run “a positive campaign. I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues, as it should be. But time and time again, by innuendo, by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to: anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought,” Clinton said. “And I just absolutely reject that, Senator. And I really don’t think these kinds of attacks by insinuation are worthy of you. And enough is enough. If you’ve got something to say, say it directly. But you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I ever received.”
The fireworks on stage Thursday’s night reflect a profound dissatisfaction within the Democratic Party. Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and across the country are deeply upset with the influence of money in politics, and Sanders railing against the campaign finance system has struck a chord in the party. The grassroots base has urged its leaders to live up to its party’s ideals, with Sanders assailing Clinton and Clinton finding herself backed into a corner on her acceptance of big money. The once-inevitable Clinton finds herself on her heels heading into a likely loss in New Hampshire and a party that seemed to be on the verge of rupturing.
“I am running for president as a Democrat. And if elected, not only do I hope to bring forth a major change in national priorities, but let me be frank, I do want to see major changes in the Democratic Party,” Sanders said.
Coming out of the Iowa caucuses and leading up to Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, the two have been sparring over what defines a “progressive Democrat.” On Election Night in Iowa, Clinton declared herself a progressive, a label which Sanders scoffed the next day only applied to her “on good days.” While Republicans have been labeling moderates —and some unpopular conservatives—RINOs, or Republicans In Name Only, for years, the argument marks the first time the Democratic Party has seen purity fissures—something Clinton noted with acerbity.
“I’ve heard Senator Sanders’ comments, and it’s really caused me to wonder who’s left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party,” Clinton said. “Under his definition, President Obama is not progressive because he took donations from Wall Street; Vice President Biden is not progressive because he supported Keystone,” Clinton said. “You know, we have differences and, honestly, I think we should be talk about what we want to do for the country.”
The two also sparred over what it meant to be part of the Establishment. Clinton noted that she has the endorsement of many of Sanders’ Vermont colleagues. Sanders said he had the endorsement of millions of Americans who give, on average, to his campaign $27. Sanders defined the Establishment as crony capitalists, hinting that Clinton’s husband Bill Clinton helped line Wall Street’s pockets with legislation he passed deregulating Wall Street.
“Let’s talk about why, in the 1990s, Wall Street got deregulated. Did it have anything to do with the fact that Wall Street provided—spent billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions?” Sanders said. “Well, some people might think, yeah, that had some influence.”
Clinton argued that she would represent the greatest change for America. “Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the Establishment,” she said.
She accused Sanders of running a one-trick campaign. “We both want to rein in the excesses of Wall Street,” Clinton said. “If all we’re going to talk about is one part of our economy, and indeed one street in our economy, we’re missing the big oil companies. We’re missing other big energy companies. We’re missing the big picture, and I have a record of trying to go at the problems that actually exist, and I will continue to do that.”
Afterwards, the Clinton camp spun that Sanders had a bad night on foreign policy, pointing out his seeming difficulty with some policies. For example, on North Korea Sanders said the country was “run by a handful of dictators, or maybe just one.” It’s run by dictator Kim Jong Un. Sanders reiterated his willingness to speak with Iran and normalize relations with them, something Clinton made clear she’d approach with much more caution and skepticism.
As they have in the past, the two debated guns, Iran and ISIS, trade, the death penalty, the water situation in Flint, Michigan and reforming the Veterans Affairs Administration, among other topics.
Still, for all the back and forth the two largely avoided direct personal attacks. Sanders once again refused to weigh in on the investigation into Clinton’s top secret emails at State. And Clinton declined to comment about the Sanders’ campaign’s proscribed download of Clinton voter files and ads that falsely implied endorsements Sanders didn’t have.
Asked if she’d pick Sanders as her VP, Clinton pledged that he would be her first phone call should she win the nomination. Sanders agreed, saying, “Sometimes in these campaigns we get a little ahead of ourselves… On our worst days I think it’s fair to say we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate.”
“That’s true, that’s true!” Clinton laughed.
In other words, this may now be more of a horse race than anticipated but the Democratic Party isn’t yet close to the fissures disrupting their Republican colleagues.