How the Brooklyn Debate Showed Democratic Dysfunction

9 minute read

The ninth Democratic debate was an unhappy family reunion around a Brooklyn dinner table. For two contentious hours at the Navy Yards on the East River, the native son and the adopted daughter squabbled and shouted like estranged relatives who were dragged unwillingly to share a meal Thursday night.

They snarked. “It may be inconvenient, but it’s always important to get the facts straight,” Hillary Clinton said.

They yelled. “Excuse me!” Bernie Sanders shouted over Clinton.

They scolded and scowled. “This is not a laughing matter,” Clinton said to Sanders.

An arbiter sought to make peace. “If you’re both screaming at each other, the viewers won’t be able to hear either of you,” scolded moderator Wolf Blizter in his best dad voice.

Still, they kept at each other as CNN cameras rolled.

When the Democratic primary arrived in New York two weeks ago, the vitriol from both sides increased. Sanders called his rival unqualified to be President, and Clinton in turn questioned his preparedness for the Oval Office. Playing out in the famously intense New York media, the pair clashed in ways that were unimaginable when Iowa began the nominating process less than three months ago.

For Sanders, the debate was a last chance to convince New York voters to support his candidacy during the April 19 primary. For Clinton, it was an opportunity to finally crush her persistent rival, who has continued in the race despite facing near insurmountable odds in the delegate count.

Both retreated to the overarching themes of their campaigns: Sanders cast Clinton as beholden to moneyed friends, and Sanders a pie-in-the-sky idealist who lacks a basic understanding of the world in Clinton’s view. Sanders questioned Clinton’s campaign contributions from Wall Street and the fossil-fuel industry, and Clinton accused Sanders of being weak on gun control just four days before New Yorkers cast their votes.

But it was a debate more caustic than any previous one on the Democratic side, with both candidates leveling the harshest attacks against each another to date. Sanders accused Clinton of making a racist remark in the 1990s when she used the term superpredator in a speech, while Clinton implied Sanders’ tax returns might include embarrassing details.

It was clear from Clinton’s tone and expression that she is exasperated by Sanders’ attacks and ready to move on to a general election against a still unknown Republican nominee. Sanders has continued to assail her record and question her integrity, and Clinton’s allies have warned that he is weakening her for a general-election contest. Sanders, who only affiliated with the Democratic Party so he could run for its nomination, shared little of their concern.

“Just repeating it doesn’t make it true,” Sanders said with saccharine sass.

“I’m getting a little bit concerned here,” Clinton said at one point, clearly frustrated with Sanders’ puckish rhetoric that, at times, bordered on disrespect. Responding to Sanders’ claim that Clinton was “unqualified” to lead the U.S., Clinton had her rejoinder ready. “I’ve been called a lot of things in my life,” the former First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State said. “That was a first.”

More often than in previous debates, Clinton leaned on her close ties with President Obama to deflect some of the criticism from Sanders. When Sanders assailed her on donations from Wall Street executives, Clinton pointed to Obama’s acceptance of money from the financial industry and his use of super PACs. In defending her push for the U.S.’s involvement in overthrowing Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Clinton justified her decision by pointing to the U.N. and NATO, and said the final call was the President’s. At home, she supported Obama’s Supreme Court nomination and suggested her health care proposal from the 1990s helped pave the way for Obama’s Affordable Care Act. “I know how hard it was to get it passed, even with a Democratic Congress,” Clinton said of the law often called Obamacare.

“I know you keep referring to Obama all night here,” mocked Sanders, who suggested the sitting President should face a primary challenge from the left.

Clinton at one point late in the debate seemed to marvel that Sanders continued to challenge her, even as his pathway to the nomination was closing. “Describing the problem is a lot easier than trying to solve it,” Clinton said, suggesting that Sanders had no ways of fixing the many problems he describes in rowdy rallies teeming with young and first-time voters.

Clinton had a strong night, clearly tired after months of Sanders’ message that she’s a corrupt political insider who will say or do anything to keep her donors happy. She previously would shake her head and say his claims were untrue. On Thursday, she went back at him with a full-throated rejection.

“This is a phony attack that is designed to raise questions when there is no evidence or support,” Clinton said after Sanders continued to cast her as a pawn of Wall Street, which she represented for eight years as New York’s Senator and paid her for speeches. “He cannot come up with any example because there is no example.”

In one of the most remarkable moments in the debate — one perhaps unprecedented in recent presidential politics — Sanders pointedly challenged Clinton’s support for Israel, saying that the U.S. needs to be less “one-sided” in its support of the Middle Eastern democracy. Sanders’ line was a significant departure from the usual American line, which requires candidates to pay lip service to the U.S.’s devotion to Israel.

“You gave a major speech to AIPAC, which obviously deals with the Middle East crisis, and you barely mentioned the Palestinians,” Sanders said. “There comes a time when, if we pursue justice and peace, we are going to have to say that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is not right all of the time.”

Sanders said that Israel’s response to the Gaza missile attacks in 2014, when thousands were killed, was “disproportionate.” Clinton, however, did not directly address that question. “Nobody is saying that any individual leader is always right, but it is a difficult position,” Clinton said of attacks on civilians that Human Rights Watch said were likely war crimes.

As on many questions, Sanders said Clinton didn’t answer the question. “Yes, I did,” she said. “Don’t put words in my mouth,” Clinton objected at another point. She is ahead, both in the popular vote and the number of delegates to the nominating convention. Yet she hasn’t yet been able to shake Sanders, the cantankerous cousin who keeps coming to family holidays.

“You know it’s always a little bit challenging because if Senator Sanders doesn’t agree with how you are approaching something, then you are a member of the Establishment,” Clinton said, remarking on Sanders’ self-professed purity on issues. His ideological sainthood, however, is unlikely on its own to deliver him the nomination. Clinton is showing no signs that her campaign is fraying in the face of the pile-on.

Allies of both campaigns expected a tough night in New York City: this was, after all, Brooklyn, were caustic tabloids and thick-skinned politicians rule. Both sides remarked on the ferocity of the debate. “This is New York. Your spirit goes up,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo, a strong Clinton supporter. “Your combativeness goes up.”

If Clinton’s aim were to claim the mandate of the Democratic Party and once and for all, she did so forcefully at the close of the debate. “Let us talk about where we are in this race. I’ve gotten more votes than anybody running: 9.6 million at the last count,” she said to cheers. “That is 2.3 million more than Senator Sanders. And it is 1.4 million more than Donald Trump.”

For good measure, she kept going. “I think you have to look at the facts. And, the facts are that I’m putting together a very broad-based, inclusive coalition from the South to the North, from the East to the West, with African American, Latinos, women, union households, working people and I am very proud of the campaign we are running,” she said. “It is a campaign that will not only capture the Democratic nomination, but a campaign that will defeat whoever the Republicans end up nominating.”

But Sanders also showed that he has the pluck to stay in the debate and can continue to be a force, despite his deep disadvantages among older and minority voters. “Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South. No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact,” he said. “But you know what? We’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up.”

Sanders earned a rowdy applause at the end, leaving Clinton to stand at her podium until the crowd calmed down. After all, this family’s shouting match seemed destined to continue until Democrats have their convention in July.

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