Politics & Policy

Clinton’s Listless Dem Debate Performance Unlikely to Halt Sanders’s Momentum

(Win McNamee/Getty)

After her stunning collapse in New Hampshire on Tuesday, many expected Hillary Clinton to roll into the next presidential debate with guns blazing. But on Thursday night in Milwaukee, the once-prohibitive Democratic frontrunner delivered a low-key, almost lethargic performance against her surging opponent, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders.

It’s tempting to blame her sleepy showing on the stuffy, awkward performance of the PBS moderators. But her opponent showed up despite that, peppering Clinton with the usual attacks over Wall Street donations and throwing in some new ones on immigration. Sanders was better-versed on national security than in past debates. And he gleefully slaughtered what he considered a sacred cow of the foreign-policy intelligentsia when he questioned Clinton’s reliance on Henry Kissinger — whom he called “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in modern history” — for advice.

Although Clinton desperately needed to blunt the insurgent candidate’s momentum coming out of New Hampshire, it was her opponent who threw — and landed — the most punches. She tried to trip up Sanders with detailed policy answers, repeatedly asking him to “level” with the American people on how he planned to accomplish his utopian vision. But caught in a defensive crouch and struggling to explain her own campaign’s shortcomings, she never really found the opening she needed.

At the start, both the candidates and the moderators were laser-focused on issues important to the African-American and Latino communities. With Nevada and South Carolina voting later this month, the two minority groups factor hugely into both campaigns’ calculations. And both sought to portray themselves as defenders of the African-American community against an unfair criminal-justice system and a lack of economic opportunity.

RELATED: Clinton’s Crushing New Hampshire Defeat Leaves Supporters Struggling for Answers

But the two candidates clashed over their records on illegal immigration, a key concern for Latino voters. When Clinton took a lazy swing at Sanders’s 2007 vote against immigration reform, the Vermont senator struck back harder. “In terms of 2007 immigration reform, yeah, I did vote against it,” Sanders said forcefully. “I voted against it because the Southern Poverty Law Center, among other groups, said that the guest-worker programs that were embedded in this agreement were akin to slavery.”

And he hit Clinton with a new line of attack, saying she was wrong to support the deportation of thousands of Central American children during the 2014 border crisis and scoffing at her response that it was necessary to send a message. “These are children who are leaving countries and neighborhoods where their lives are at stake,” Sanders said. “That was the fact. I don’t think we use them to send a message. I think we welcome them into this country and do the best we can to help them get their lives together.”

Clinton was also put on the defensive over a comment made by one of her surrogates, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, that there was a “special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women. “Well, look, I think that she’s been saying that for as long as I’ve known her, which is about 25 years,” Clinton said. “I have no argument with anyone making up her mind about who to support. I just hope that by the end of this campaign there will be a lot more [women] supporting me.”

“Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around.”

— Bernie Sanders

Of course, Clinton’s ties to Wall Street made an appearance. Unlike in the last debate, Clinton made no mention of the “artful smear” she believes the Sanders campaign is using against her over the issue. Instead of starting fires, Clinton seemed more intent on putting one out. “It’s not my PAC,” she said pleadingly, when Sanders and the moderators questioned her about the support she’s received from Priorities USA Action, which is heavily funded by George Soros and other powerful billionaires. She pointed to President Obama’s Wall Street donations during his campaign as proof that money couldn’t buy a candidate. “When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street,” she said.

Sanders didn’t let up. “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people, people aren’t dumb,” he said. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it; they want to throw money around.”

#share#Foreign policy is typically Clinton’s strongest segment in any debate — particularly against Sanders, who seemed out of his depth on the issue last week. But the Vermont senator had obviously came prepared on Thursday night, giving a detailed history lesson on how he believes U.S. interventionist policy since World War II has gone terribly wrong.

He even forced Clinton on the defensive with an outrageous attack on a Vietnam-era secretary of state. “She talked about getting the approval or the support or the mentoring of Henry Kissinger,” Sanders said. “Now, I find it rather amazing, because I happen to believe that Henry Kissinger was one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country.”

RELATED: To Feminist Consternation, Hillary Is Being Judged as an Individual — Not as a Woman

“I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders continued, prompting loud applause. “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.”

Clinton tried to return fire. “Well, I know journalists have asked who you do listen to on foreign policy, and we have yet to know who that is,” she said.

“Well, it ain’t Henry Kissinger, that’s for sure,” Sanders shot back, blunting yet another attack.

Perhaps the only time Clinton showed some fighting spirit was right at the end.

Perhaps the only time Clinton showed some fighting spirit was right at the end, when she challenged Sanders over his criticisms of President Obama as not progressive enough. “The kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans,” she said. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”

“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders replied, calling it unfair to be tarred and feathered just for disagreeing with the president on some issues. “Do senators have the right to disagree with the president? Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.” Then, the kicker: “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”

#related#But Clinton’s line of attack may be the only one with the potential to bite Sanders down the line. President Obama is still lionized by African Americans — including those who make up 55 percent of South Carolina’s Democratic electorate. To win there later this month, Sanders will have to find fresh inroads into a black community unfamiliar with his history but very familiar with the Clinton family. With the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and six black South Carolina state legislators endorsing Clinton on Thursday, and several black congressmen lobbing nasty barbs Sanders’s way, those roads could be closing off soon — particularly if Sanders can’t find a way to make his peace with America’s first black president.

Still, Sanders is turning out to be a more accomplished debater than many anticipated. In a political environment in which a slight stumble can cripple a major contender (see Marco Rubio), the senator has more than held his own against a veteran on the national stage. In past debates, Clinton tried and failed to land the knockout blow against Sanders. On Thursday night, she barely seemed to keep her head above water. It’s too early to tell whether her poor performance will give Sanders an opening against the Clinton campaign’s much-vaunted firewall in Nevada and South Carolina. But it likely did nothing to slow his building momentum.

– Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.

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