Bernie Sanders doubled down Thursday on his criticism that Hillary Clinton is “not qualified” to be President, even as Clinton sought to avoid escalating the most heated dispute yet in their increasingly bitter Democratic primary contest.
“Are you qualified to be President of the United States when you’re raising millions of dollars from Wall Street whose greed, recklessness and illegal behavior helped to destroy our economy?” Sanders said in Philadelphia. “Maybe the American people might wonder about your qualifications, Madame Secretary, when you voted for the war in Iraq, the most disastrous foreign policy blunder in the modern history America.”
Campaigning in New York City on Thursday ahead of the state’s April 19 primary, Clinton tried to extend an olive branch to her opponent, over whom she still holds a healthy delegate lead despite his victories in six of the last seven contests. “I don’t know why he’s saying that,” Clinton said. “But I will take Bernie Sanders over Donald trump or Ted Cruz any time.”
The two candidates’ remarks, which came at almost precisely the same time, were a split-screen reflection of their positions in the race. Sanders, who only has the slimmest of chances of winning the Democratic nomination, has little to lose by attacking Clinton: His hardline stance against the front-runner riles up his supporters and helps him raise money, giving him leverage and momentum ahead of the Democratic convention. Clinton, the likely nominee, could risk alienating Sanders supporters if she is too critical of the Vermont senator.
“We are going to have to unify the Democrats and right thinking Americans to stand up against the Republicans,” Clinton said Thursday morning.
Clinton’s national press secretary, Brian Fallon, expressed umbrage at Sanders’ remarks. “The Sanders campaign needs to take a deep breathe here,” Fallon said on MSNBC. “Questioning the fitness for office is below the belt.”
The latest exchange between the candidates began on Wednesday morning. Clinton was asked repeatedly in an MSNBC interview whether Sanders was qualified to be President. Clinton said that Sanders’ lack of knowledge on key issues “raised a lot of really serious questions,” but she did not say Sanders was “unqualified” to be president.
Later that day, Sanders harshly rebuked Clinton, telling a crowd in Philadelphia that Clinton had called him “quote-unquote, ‘not qualified to be president.'”
“I don’t believe that she is qualified if she is through her super PAC taking tens of millions of dollars in special-interest funds,” Sanders told the crowd. “I don’t think that you are qualified if you get $15 million from Wall Street through your super PAC.”
Sanders’ supporters encouraged his line the next day. “Questioning whether an opponent’s judgement on issues like job-killing trade deals, the Iraq war, or who funds their campaign qualifies them for the presidency is precisely the point of a primary,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, which has endorsed Sanders.
Sanders and Clinton are campaigning hard in New York, a state where Sanders was born and that Clinton represented as senator. Clinton leads in polls by significant margins but her aides are predicting a healthy contest in the state.
The Vermont senator has sharpened his tone in recent days. After a Clinton supporter and daughter of the principal killed at Sandy Hook said that Sanders owes her “an apology” for opposing lawsuits against gun manufacturers, Sanders rebuked Clinton harshly. “Maybe Secretary Clinton might want to apologize to the families who lost their loved ones in Iraq,” he said on CBS.
Clinton, meanwhile, has mobilized surrogates to criticize Sanders’ record on gun control, particularly his support for giving gunmakers immunity from lawsuits.
Sanders justified his attack Thursday morning, saying he was defending himself ahead of a contentious primary in New York. “This is not the type of politics I want to get into,” Sanders said. “But let me also be very clear: if Secretary Clinton thinks I come form the small state of Vermont and we’re not used to this, well, we will get used this.”