On Sunday night in Charleston, for the first time this cycle, the Democratic presidential debate bore at least a slim resemblance to its raucous Republican counterpart. Reeling from an unexpected decline in Iowa and New Hampshire just two weeks from the first caucus, Hillary Clinton finally threw herself into a series of scripted attacks on Bernie Sanders’s gun-control and health-care plans while wrapping herself tightly in President Obama’s mantle.
But Sanders hit back harder, painting Clinton as an establishment figure beholden to Wall Street and even engaging in some Trumpian braggadocio over his climbing poll numbers. “As Secretary Clinton well knows, when this campaign began she was 50 points ahead of me,” he said. “Guess what? In Iowa, New Hampshire, the race is very, very close. Maybe we’re ahead in New Hampshire. . . . We have the momentum, we’re on the path to victory.”
It was a clear shift from the placid, deferential debates of last year. But despite several spirited tussles during which the candidates interrupted and talked over each other, neither seemed to get an obvious edge. In a race where the underdog is surging and the specter of the 2008 Democratic primary looms, Clinton’s failure to land a decisive blow is a missed opportunity. It’s still her race to lose, but on Sunday night, she did little to blunt Sanders’s momentum — or even make up the ground she’s already lost.
Clinton’s attacks on Sanders echoed the onslaught her scrambling campaign deployed against the Vermont senator over the last week.
Clinton’s attacks on Sanders echoed the onslaught her scrambling campaign deployed against the Vermont senator over the last week. Faced with a sudden, sharp drop in the polls in the first half of January, a drop that left Clinton neck-and-neck with Sanders in Iowa and trailing him in New Hampshire, her campaign launched a multi-pronged offensive against his gun-control stance, his plans for health-care reform, and his rhetoric on Wall Street. Clinton called Sanders “a pretty reliable vote for the gun lobby” on Wednesday, the same day her campaign held a conference call slamming Sanders for refusing to detail how he’d fund his “Medicare for all” proposal, and the day after her daughter Chelsea claimed that Sanders wanted to “dismantle Obamacare.” On Thursday, her campaign went after Sanders when he aired an ad describing “two Democratic visions” for Wall Street regulation — an allusion they felt constituted an unscrupulous “attack ad.”
Some of the criticisms seemed to sting the Sanders campaign. On Saturday, Sanders appeared to reverse his position on a bill that would hold gun manufacturers accountable for crimes committed through their products. And just hours before the debate, he released a plan to fund his health-care proposal through tax increases.
#share#Inexplicably, however, Clinton failed to make hay over Sanders’s flip-flops, saying only that she was “pleased to hear that Senator Sanders has reversed his position.” And when she did go after Sanders on Sunday, he struck back forcefully.
“Secretary Clinton knows what she says is very disingenuous,” he said in response to her claim that he votes with the NRA. He called her allegation that he plans to dismantle Obamacare “nonsense — no one is tearing this up, we are going to go forward.” When Clinton attacked him for raising taxes on the middle class to fund his health-care plan, Sanders said he was “disappointed that Secretary Clinton’s campaign has made this criticism, it’s a Republican criticism.”
It’s not clear that tying her mast to Obama’s will be enough to get her through the Democratic primary.
Perhaps Clinton’s strongest sign of life came in response to Sanders’s attack on her ties to Wall Street, when she combined her relentless praise of President Obama’s legacy with an attack on Sanders’s character. “The comments that Senator Sanders has made don’t just affect me, I can take that,” she said. “But he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the great recession. Senator Sanders called him weak, disappointing!” She ended by pledging to “defend President Obama,” to wild cheers from the crowd.
But it’s not clear that tying her mast to Obama’s will be enough to get her through the Democratic primary. “We always knew this race would get tight,” Clinton campaign manager John Podesta wrote in a fundraising e-mail the day before the debate. It’s a line the Clinton camp — and Clinton herself — has used to fend off reporters and soothe anxious supporters since the race tightened earlier this month.
Privately, however, close Clinton advisers are kicking themselves for their complacency in the face of Sanders’s insurgent campaign. Though she took soft swipes at Sanders’s gun-control stance over several Democratic debates last year, for the most part Clinton and her campaign used a soft touch against her rival until last week. As the New York Times reported Saturday, nearly a dozen of Clinton’s friends, outside allies, and donors now believe they underestimated Sanders, allowing his progressive, anti-establishment message to develop into a juggernaut.
#related#Compounding the anxiety are the similarities to Clinton’s last foray into Iowa. Having entered the race with a comfortable lead, she saw her prospects evaporate under competition from a senator with limited national experience and a transformative, ultra-liberal message. An unexpected wave of young and new voters pushed Obama to victory in Iowa in 2008 — a phenomenon Clinton and her advisers worry is repeating this cycle, as Sanders continues to draw record crowds of college kids to rallies nationwide.
The Clinton campaign hopes that the phenomenon stops there and that Sanders fails to connect with the African-American and Latino voters he needs if he is to compete in South Carolina, Nevada, and other states where his polling is lackluster. But like Obama in 2008, Sanders plans to broaden his appeal in the wake of a win in Iowa or New Hampshire. “When the African-American community becomes familiar with my congressional record and with our agenda, and with our views on the economy, and criminal justice — just as the general population has become more supportive so will the African-American community, so will the Latino community,” Sanders promised.
With no more debates until after Iowa and New Hampshire, Sunday night was Clinton’s last chance to directly undermine Sanders’s surge. Unless she really wants to test whether a Sanders win in the early states will translate to a second look elsewhere, she and her campaign will only get more aggressive from here forward.