Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton traded sharp barbs and even contempt for each other Thursday night in a heated Democratic presidential debate that showcased the candidates’ major differences on policy areas such as climate change, gun control and Israel.
While the Democratic primary began much more civilly than the Republican contest, it has grown increasingly testy in recent weeks as Sanders has stuck around far beyond most political analysts expectations. The two have campaigned vigorously in New York over the past few weeks ahead of the state’s primary on Tuesday, and though the enthusiastic audience Thursday night seemed to lean toward Sanders, Clinton has maintained her lead in the New York polls. The primary is close to a must-win for each candidate: Clinton, to maintain her pace to lock up the nomination ahead of the convention, and Sanders, to keep alive any hope of blocking his opponent or persuading superdelegates to turn to him.
Both candidates made effective points, but each targeted their comments to those who already support them, so the debate, while substantive, was unlikely to have changed any minds. Sanders began the debate by recounting the surprising success his campaign has had and giving a simple explanation:
“We’re doing something pretty radical,” he said. “We’re telling the American people the truth.”
He continued with this theme throughout the night, often calling Clinton out on areas in which she’s changed her positions over time. But the former secretary of state had comebacks of her own. Early on, she set the tone by questioning Sanders’ ability to get things done. She quickly reminded voters of Sanders’ interview with the New York Daily News editorial board in which he stumbled over policy issues, particularly with how he would complete his goal of breaking up big banks.
Spoiler alert: Hillary is still going to win the Democratic nomination, just like she was before this, and every other, debate.
— Matt O'Brien (@ObsoleteDogma) April 15, 2016
The Democrats exchanged zingers on practically every topic, but one that drew especially tense responses was gun control. When Clinton began to answer a question on the issue, Sanders chuckled in anticipation and she she turned on him.
“It's not a laughing matter,” she said. “Ninety people on average a day are killed or commit suicide or die in accidents from guns, 33,000 people a year. I take it really seriously, because I have spent more time than I care to remember being with people who have lost their loved ones.”
Clinton then painted Sanders as a friend of the National Rifle Association and talked about his votes against gun control bills in the past, comments to which Sanders did not have particularly robust replies. When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders about his opposition to allowing crime victims to sue gun makers for damages, the Vermont senator defended himself.
“Now, I voted against this gun liability law because I was concerned that in rural areas all over this country, if a gun shop owner sells a weapon legally to somebody, and that person then goes out and kills somebody, I don't believe it is appropriate that that gun shop owner who just sold a legal weapon to be held accountable and be sued,” Sanders said.
— Kris (@KrisK75USMC) April 15, 2016
His answer was awkward, not least because of the timing. Families of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre are suing the manufacturers and sellers of the weapons used, and just hours before the debate, a Connecticut judge ruled that the suit could go forward. Asked during the debate if he felt he owed the families an apology, Senator Sanders declined.
While Sanders did not appear to win on the gun issue, he did stand up to Clinton on two other issues: fracking and Israel. On the issue of climate change, he was able to win over the crowd because he has taken a more hardline stance against fracking than Clinton has.
— BERNIE SANDERS 2016 (@SlayQueenBernie) April 15, 2016
But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a standout moment of the night. Here, Sanders spoke out for Palestinian rights in a way few national politicians have.
“As somebody who is 100 percent pro-Israel, in the long run — and this is not going to be easy, God only knows, but in the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders said. He has said, to criticism from some Israelis and conservative American Jews, that Israel's military response to the Gaza unrest was "disproportionate."
Clinton mostly focused on Israel’s right to defend itself. Sanders criticized her for a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) where, he charged, she failed to even mention Palestinians.
“You gave a major speech to AIPAC, which obviously deals with the Middle East crisis, and you barely mentioned the Palestinians,” Sanders said.
These comments came right after Sanders’ campaign suspended its Jewish outreach coordinator on Thursday after she received criticism for attacking Israel in the past. In New York, where Jews make up a significant portion of the electorate, this is likely to be a significant issue going into next week’s election.
Overall, the debate audience and people on social media seemed to think Sanders performed well in this ninth debate, but many of Clinton’s surrogates were quick to point out she still holds a commanding lead in polling and in the delegate count. In her closing statement, the former secretary of state cited how many votes she's won over the course of the campaign —a Trumpian line of argument. But it's a fact nonetheless, although Sanders tried to diminish her lead by pointing out that many of her victories came in the "conservative" South.
New York is neither Southern nor conservative, and Sanders likely needs a win there to truly change the direction of the Democratic race.