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Liveblog: The Sixth Democratic Debate:  ‘Let Us Level With the American People’

Posted on Feb 11, 2016

  Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton met in Milwaukee for Thursday’s Democratic debate. (PBS NewsHour)

Update: 8:14 p.m. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared pleased when the PBS NewsHour moderators announced that foreign policy was up for discussion. Knowing this is one of her perceived strengths, Bernie Sanders went on the offensive. “There is no question that Secretary Clinton and I are friends,” he said, adding, “She’s got a bit of experience ... but judgment matters as well.”

Clinton took fire from Sanders for her 2003 vote in favor of the Iraq invasion, then turned the heat on him with a claim that he had effectively cast a vote for “regime change” in Iraq in 1998. Sanders begged to differ. Jumping on another of Clinton’s chummy relationships with a former U.S. secretary of state (besides Madeleine Albright), Sanders archly declared, “I’m proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”

Clinton kept her cool, playing up how President Obama had clashed with her in the 2008 election cycle but ultimately picked her to head up the State Department. She tried to impress the audience with policy-wonk talk about Syria and boost her own standing by rallying behind Obama—and implying that Sanders doesn’t. “I don’t think [Obama] gets the credit he deserves for being a president who dug us out of that ditch, put us on firm ground, and himself sent us into the future,” she said. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Sen. Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans. I do not expect [it] from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders shot back, adding that a U.S. senator has the right to disagree with the president, and matching her zinger with one of his own: “One of us ran against Barack Obama—I was not that candidate.”

This combative tone continued through the closing comments, particularly on Clinton’s side. Sanders finished with a familiar call for “political revolution,” which he stressed could not be achieved single-handedly by either a President Sanders or a President Clinton. The latter hypothetical commander in chief tried to turn Sanders’ advantages into a liability by invoking the idea that he is a “single-issue” candidate—but put herself on par with him on that same issue. “We agree that Wall Street should never be able to wreck Main Street again,” she said.

Then, the high-wire act was over, with Clinton coming off more aggressively in the second half than Sanders, who instead played on his ability to inspire. Neither was a clear winner, and neither faltered, once again signaling that American voters are in for a long slog to the nomination.

*  *  *

Update: 7:10 p.m. The focus of the second segment of the debate was on race and campaign funding, topics that should have cost Clinton more ground than Sanders was able to take from her. Asked how a President Clinton would make progress in combating racial inequality when it has been a constant challenge for Obama, she was able (and Sanders allowed her) to deflect criticism about her track record on race and trot out a series of safe bullet points, such as: “We are seeing the dark side of the remaining systemic racism that we have to root out.”

Sanders chimed in with quotes similarly tailored for the news cycle, such as: “The African-American community lost half of their wealth as a result of the Wall Street collapse. Clearly we are looking at institutional racism.” And, “At the end of my first term as president, we will not have more people in jail than any other country.”

Clinton also claimed, “I’ve made it clear that no bank is too big to fail, no executive too powerful to jail,” without mentioning why she was willing to take tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, one of the biggest banking behemoths. It was up to moderator Judy Woodruff to point out that, in addition to the Goldman Sachs connection, Clinton’s campaign enjoyed financing boosts from Democrat-friendly billionaires such as George Soros. “You’re referring to a super PAC that we don’t coordinate with,” Clinton responded, in the evening’s equivalent of her “That’s what they offered” blooper from the week before. “It’s not my PAC.”

*  *  *

Sanders kicked off Thursday’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee with a few familiar lines from his campaign-trail greatest hits before getting down to business with a series of fiery salvos targeting Clinton. She was ready for him.

Shortly into the first round of the debate, moderated by Woodruff and Gwen Ifill of PBS, it was clear that the candidates were prepared to go toe to toe, aware that the stakes were much higher this time around and needing to make sharper distinctions in their profiles.

Sanders started strong. Following familiar refrains about the nation’s “rigged economy” and how his fellow Americans should “not let the Trumps of the world divide us,” he shifted modes from earlier debates, when he had expressed support for Clinton, and struck out on his own. “Let us level with the American people,” he said, describing his proposals for boosting the health care system and energizing the economy. He said his Medicare-for-all proposal would save the average middle-class family $5,000 per year. He also claimed he has a plan to create 13 million jobs “at a cost of a trillion dollars.” 

A composed Clinton took several opportunities to regain footing after her defeat in the New Hampshire primary and her botched endorsements from Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem. She positioned herself as being opposed to oversized government and echoed Sanders’ tune about the growing gap between Main Street and Wall Street. “I know a lot of Americans are angry about the economy, and for good cause,” she said. “Americans haven’t had a raise in 15 years,” she added, entering somewhat dangerous territory given the ongoing controversy over her speaking fees.

She was eager to associate herself with Obama’s biggest win—Obamacare, which she said was originally known as “Hillarycare”— taking credit for starting the legislative wheels turning for health care reform during the 1990s. She also tried to assure female voters that the idea of “choice” extends to their voting preferences, “even if that choice is not to vote for me.”

Clinton framed Sanders’ proposals as financially unrealistic, saying, “We should not make promises we can’t keep” because “that would further alienate Americans.” Putting a $1-billion-a-year price tag on her own economic scheme, she claimed, “I will not throw us further into debt. ... Once I’m in the White House, I believe we will have enough political capital to be able to do that.”

There was the opening, and Sanders took it: “Well, Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet,” he said.

—Posted by Kasia Anderson

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