Clinton casts herself as pragmatist against Sanders’s idealism
Sanders scored points in final debate before voting begins but landed no knockout punch
It’s about evolution, not revolution; pragmatism, not idealism.
This was Hillary Clinton’s message as she sought to depict socialist Bernie Sanders as a pie-in-the-sky dreamer at the final Democratic presidential debate before the first votes are cast in Iowa in two weeks.
It was ironic that Clinton chose a debate stage in South Carolina – where her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama was the nastiest – to align herself with the president. On Sunday night, she cast herself as his viable successor in a no-punches-pulled assault on Sanders’s policies.
South Carolina may be the place where this contest to pick the party’s nominee is decided on February 27th: it is the only state among the first three where Clinton still has a commanding lead.
Sanders has closed the gap on her in Iowa, where voters caucus on February 1st, and leads her in second-to-vote New Hampshire, which holds its primary on February 9th.
This was a debate targeted at Obama’s base of voters in an agenda set by Sanders.
Clinton is struggling to hold together “the Obama coalition” – young voters, white liberals and African-Americans – that swept him to power. Sanders is beating Clinton two-to-one among young voters drawn to his purist liberal manifesto of economic equality and change against the establishment and a corrupt campaign finance system.
Hit on the issues
She defended the record of the president, a popular figure among African-Americans who hold sway in South Carolina’s Democratic primary, and tried to drive a wedge between Sanders and his supporters.
Responding to an effective Sanders attack on her close ties with Wall Street that touched on $600,000 (€550,000) in speaking fees she received from Goldman Sachs, Clinton brought up the president. She noted that Obama too had taken donations from Wall Street and referred to how Sanders had sought a primary challenger to contest his 2012 re-election bid.
Clinton lashed Sanders on his plan to introduce universal healthcare, saying he would dismantle the work Obama had done to pass the Affordable Care Act after a long, hard fight with Republicans.
“To tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction,” she said.
Sanders insisted he was not going to tear it up – “I helped write it” – but that he would build on it.
In a city reeling from the killing of nine parishioners at a black church in one of the worst acts of violence of 2015, Clinton attacked Sanders as being “a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby”. She patronisingly said she was “pleased” that he had reversed his position from 2005 to support a bill challenging legal immunity for gun makers and dealers.
Sanders accused Clinton of being “very disingenuous,” pointing to his “D-minus” voting record with the National Rifle Association.
Presenting herself as the continuity candidate, Clinton will have inflicted little damage on Sanders among his own supporters, who like an anti-status-quo candidate at a time when many Americans want change.
Realist with a recordCongress
“She is trying to live within the realm of the possible and not become a fantasist the way that Bernie has,” said Matt Bennett, a Democratic consultant in Washington who worked on both Clintons’ campaigns.
Sanders was more forceful in this debate, raising his arms animatedly and his voice to a near-shout at times. But after the bout he left Clinton standing as the frontrunner, at least beyond the first two symbolic states.
“Bernie did well but I don’t think there was a knockdown, and that is what Bernie needs right now,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.
“He needs to take her down a couple of pegs and I don’t think that happened last night, which in my book makes Hillary the winner.”