FLINT, Mich. — Sen. Bernie Sanders, anxious that the Democratic nomination is slipping away from him, launched a series of cutting and sarcastic attacks against Hillary Clinton over trade, Wall Street, welfare reform and other issues at Sunday’s debate that at times felt like a war over the legacy of Bill Clinton and moderate Democratic policies of the 1990s.
Even Hillary Clinton joined in the repudiation of some of her husband’s accomplishments, such as the 1994 crime bill and the 1996 welfare law, which both disproportionately harmed a part of the electorate — African-Americans — that the two Democrats are now aggressively courting in Michigan, Ohio and other racially diverse states that hold primaries over the next nine days.
The subtext for much of the debate was Sanders’ urgent need to cut into Clinton’s support among African-Americans, while also courting working-class white voters and union members who have lost jobs, pay raises and benefits in part as a result of free trade deals.
Sanders, who has fallen far behind Clinton in their all-important race to accumulate delegates to clinch the party’s nomination, has rarely been so aggressive. He portrayed Clinton as an unapologetic champion of free trade for much of her career, in hopes of hurting her with Rust Belt Democrats. He tied her aggressively to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Bill Clinton’s signature trade policy, and to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, President Barack Obama’s 12-nation trade pact, which she supported as secretary of state but then denounced as a presidential candidate.
Sanders also attacked Clinton’s support of the federal Export-Import Bank, the 82-year-old export credit agency that anti-government populists on both sides have derided as “corporate welfare,’’ and feigned amazement when she expressed criticism of some trade deals.
“Secretary Clinton has discovered religion on this issue, but it’s a little bit too late,’’ Sanders said. “I was on a picket line in the early 1990s against NAFTA, because you didn’t need a Ph.D. in economics to understand that American workers should not be forced to compete against people in Mexico making 25 cents an hour.’’
For the most part, Clinton deftly parried her rival’s arguments, deriding many of them and agreeing with a few, and at times interrupting Sanders in hopes of provoking a testy explosion.
Sanders lost his cool at a couple of moments, though he was not as volatile as the Republican candidates have been in recent debates. Clinton, who is focused on protecting her delegate lead, tried to stay positive, providing reassuring words about the water crisis here, and even trying to recast her husband’s agenda as positive for African-Americans and others.
“If we’re going to talk about the 1990s, let’s talk about 23 million new jobs — incomes went up for everybody, median African-American income went up 33 percent at the end of the 90s, and we lifted more people out of poverty than at any other time in recent history,’’ Clinton said.
Tension between the two candidates has been building for months, but it broke into the open Sunday night when Sanders attacked Clinton over what he called “the Wall Street bailout where some of your friends destroyed the economy.’’
When Clinton tried to cut him off, Sanders said, “Excuse me, I’m talking.’’
After a brief dramatic pause, Clinton said sharply, “If you’re going to talk, tell the whole story.’’
“Let me tell my story and you tell yours,’’ Sanders shot back.
Clinton came armed with a resonant retort to Sanders over his Wall Street attacks, reminding the audience that Sanders voted against the auto industry bailout and reiterating her criticism that he is a “single issue’’ candidate too narrowly focused on Wall Street.
“If everybody had voted the way he did, I believe the auto industry would have collapsed, taking 4 million jobs with it,’’ she said.
Sanders allowed that perhaps he was a single-issue candidate. “My one issue is trying to rebuild a disappearing middle class. That’s my one issue,’’ he said.
The candidates also grew testy on gun control. When the father of a young daughter injured in a recent shooting in nearby Kalamazoo asked both candidates what they would do about gun control, Clinton criticized Sanders. “Giving immunity to gun makers and sellers was a terrible mistake because it removed any accountability from the makers and the sellers,’’ she said, referring to Sanders’ position.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but what you’re really talking about is people saying let’s end gun manufacturing in America,’’ Sanders said of the immunity issue. “That’s the implication of that and I don’t agree with that.’’
When Clinton pounced again on his positions on gun control, Sanders grew terse. “Can I finish please? All right?’’ he said.
More than she has in past debates, Clinton sought to reach out to Sanders supporters in hopes of uniting the factions of the Democratic Party and to lay the groundwork for a general election message against Donald Trump, the leading Republican candidate.
Instead of looking away as Sanders spoke, as she often did in past debates, Clinton watched him and nodded frequently as he talked about the Flint water crisis. She colorfully agreed with him in the debate’s opening moments when, after Sanders decried the lead water crisis, she said, “Amen to that.’’ For the first time she echoed the senator’s call for the resignation of Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan (or, alternatively, she said he should be recalled).
“I know the state of Michigan has a rainy-day fund for emergencies,’’ Clinton said. “It is raining lead in Flint.’’
Flint, a city in the midst of public health emergency over lead-tainted water, provided a poignant backdrop for a debate focused on income inequality and the steady decline of the country’s manufacturing jobs. Once a symbol of an American middle class made more prosperous by a robust auto industry, Flint is now a city where 42 percent of the majority African-American population lives below the poverty line.
But at Sunday’s debate, Sanders struck some more aggressive notes on Flint than he had in the past, indicating he would order the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come to Flint to evaluate the health of every adult and child in the city, a measure Clinton also supports. “Federal government comes in, federal government acts,’’ Sanders said.
Clinton then sounded some tougher notes, saying she would “have a full investigation to determine who knew what when’’ in the Environmental Protection Agency and that “people should be fired.’’ Sanders followed with an even sharper statement, saying, “President Sanders would fire anybody who knew about what was happening and did not act accordingly.’’
The Flint debate was the first since Clinton secured a commanding lead over Sanders over the last three weeks in amassing the 2,383 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. On Sunday night she sought to protect her edge with African-Americans who have helped her build the delegate lead more than any other group. She pushed back against a question from a CNN debate moderator, Don Lemon, about why black voters should trust her promises to reform the criminal justice system after she supported the 1994 crime bill that is partially responsible for disproportionately punishing black men with jail sentences.
Clinton noted that Sanders voted for the bill and then criticized it, saying, “Too many families were broken up, too many communities were adversely affected.’’ But when Lemon pressed Clinton again on his original question about why African-Americans should stand by her, she struggled a bit, saying, “Senator Sanders voted for it as well, are you going to ask him that question?’’
Sanders said there were parts of the legislation, like the violence against women act and ban on assault weapons that he supported. “There are bills in Congress that have bad stuff. There are bills in Congress that have good stuff, good stuff and bad stuff in the same bill,’’ he said as Clinton nodded.
The issue of race loomed over much of the debate as Clinton and Sanders sought to appeal to the large African-American populations in Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and other Michigan cities. Asked what racial blind spots each candidate has, Clinton said, “Being a white person in the United States of America, I know that I’ve never had the experience that so many of the people in this audience have had.’’ She urged white people to think about what it’s like for African-American parents to have the “talk with their kids’’ about potentially getting in trouble with the police because of the color of their skin.
Sanders recalled an African-American friend in Washington who did not take taxis because he was humiliated when they did not pull over and he recalled talking to a young Black Lives Matter activist. “You don’t understand the degree to which we are terrorized,’’ she told him. “When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or get dragged out of a car.’’
Asked about her comments in a 1996 speech about crime in which she referred to urban youths as “super predators,’’ Clinton said it had been “a poor choice of words’’ and that she had not used the term since then.