NEW YORK — Sen. Bernie Sanders, seizing on potential vulnerabilities for Hillary Clinton in the coming New York primary, repeatedly savaged her ties to wealthy donors and Wall Street banks during their debate Thursday night, delivering a ferocious performance that Clinton countered with steely confidence and her own sharp elbows.
Sanders, hoping to humiliate Clinton in her adopted home state in Tuesday’s primary, bluntly challenged her fitness for the presidency, saying she had the experience and intelligence for the job but adding, “I do question her judgment.”
He listed her most controversial actions over the years, from voting to authorize the American invasion of Iraq to supporting some free trade deals and taking $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. While he did not repeat his recent remark that she was unqualified to be president, he constantly edged up to the line.
“Do we really feel confident about a candidate who says she will bring change in America when she is so dependent on big money interests?” Sanders asked. “I don’t think so.”
Clinton fought back hard, especially in a fierce exchange over Israel, as the two candidates played to a rambunctious and roaring audience at the Brooklyn Navy Yard: a classic New York crowd that interrupted, booed and cheered in sports arena style, creating a highly charged atmosphere. The forum also revealed the increasing animosity between Sanders and Clinton, who no longer offer each other the polite rejoinders and carefully couched criticisms that characterized the early part of the campaign.
Feisty and frequently sarcastic, Sanders could barely contain his disgust with Clinton’s ties with Wall Street, a ripe target among liberals in New York City and in economically depressed upstate regions. After Clinton said she had stood up to bankers and “called them out” on their shaky financial practices before the recession, Sanders delivered his retort with the flair of a veteran Broadway actor.
“Secretary Clinton called them out — oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” Sanders said. “And was that before or after you received huge sums of money for speaking engagements?”
Clinton, who is comfortably ahead in polls of New York voters, seemed to relish taking swings at Sanders.
“Make no mistake about it — this is not just an attack on me, it’s an attack on President Obama,” Clinton said about the criticism of her use of a super PAC and acceptance of big-money contributions. As many audience members booed, Clinton grinned a little before saying, “This is a phony attack that is designed to raise questions when there is no evidence or support to undergird the insinuations.”
Sanders needs a landslide victory in New York to improve his slim chances at the Democratic nomination, and throughout the debate he appeared on the hunt for any new advantage. He highlighted a recent report about the failure of banks to plan for their own demise as evidence that his regulatory plans, and not Clinton’s, were tough enough to rein in bank executives. He pointed to some polls indicating that he would be a stronger opponent than Clinton in a general election against Donald Trump if he wins the Republican nomination.
Clinton showed determination to deal a devastating blow to Sanders in the New York primary, and she sought to lay the groundwork Thursday night with the issue of Israel, which evolved into one of the more memorable exchanges of the evening. In New York, where candidates traditionally compete with one another to align themselves with Israel’s interests, it was startling to see a major Democratic candidate, Sanders, unapologetically challenge the actions of the Israeli government and call for evenhanded treatment of Palestinians.
“If we are ever going to peace to that region,” Sanders said, “we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity.” He added, “That does not make me anti-Israel.”
Clinton jumped on her rival. “I negotiated the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in November of 2012,” she said. “They do not seek this kind of attacks. They do not invite rockets parading down on their towns and villages.”
Sanders said Clinton was “evading” a major issue: whether she believes that Israel disproportionately responds to attacks, such as during the 2014 assault on Gaza. And he was sharply critical of Clinton’s stance on Palestinians, twice bringing up her recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, an influential pro-Israel lobbying group. “I heard almost no discussion at all about the needs of the Palestinian people,” he said of the speech.
Sanders came in for some of his toughest treatment from the debate moderators, led by Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash of CNN, who questioned him aggressively about his grasp of banking regulations and his struggle to provide policy details during an interview with The Daily News’ editorial board.
Bash also challenged Sanders to give an example of how Clinton was unduly influenced by big banks, to which he cited the financial excesses and greed that led to the recession.
“The obvious response to that is that you’ve got a bunch of fraudulent operations and they’ve got to be broken up,” Sanders said. “Now, Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech. So the proper response, in my view, is we should break them up.”
Clinton drew strong applause when she bluntly said her opponent had evaded the question, adding, “He cannot come up with any example because there is no example.”
The debate was in many ways the sum of the previous eight. Sanders has grown steadily more assertive and combative since the Democrats’ first debate in October, when he passed up opportunities to attack Clinton over her Iraq War vote and her speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. He now raises those issues almost daily in an attempt to win over voters by drawing sharp contrasts between his and Clinton’s policy records. He has also been trying to appeal to a broader audience, including African-Americans and Hispanics, beyond the liberals and young people who were his focus in the early debates.
Clinton has remained a polished and nimble performer throughout the debate season, which nearly ended in March as the two campaigns bickered about holding a debate in New York before the primary. The campaigns have also discussed holding a debate in May — perhaps in California, before its June 7 primary — though no agreement has been reached.
As aggressive as Sanders acted in the debate, he has very limited ability to overtake Clinton in their critical competition to amass the 2,383 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. Despite his winning seven of the last eight primaries and caucuses, he continues to trail Clinton by 220 pledged delegates. And his chances of catching up are about to get harder: The New York primary will open a period in which the map of nomination contests shifts back in Clinton’s favor, with several large states holding primaries instead of caucuses. Sanders has excelled at winning Democratic caucuses, but Clinton is ahead in polls in Pennsylvania and Maryland, which hold primaries on April 26.
The most uncomfortable moment for Clinton came when the debate turned to the 1994 crime bill, which put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, built new prisons and banned certain types of assault weapons. The bill, which Sanders voted for and Clinton supported as first lady, has been widely criticized as contributing to the mass incarceration of African-Americans and to tensions between police officers and black communities.
Sanders minced no words about Clinton’s use of the term “superpredators” to describe urban gang members in a 1996 speech. And he explained why he had criticized former President Bill Clinton this week for standing up for Hillary Clinton on the issue.
“It was a racist term, and everybody knew it was a racist term,” he said, setting off rousing cheers from the crowd.
Clinton has said she regrets using the term, and on Thursday night she had no problem putting the blame for the crime bill on her husband. “He was the president who actually signed it,” she said.
Clinton continually tried to make her opponent appear less versed on policy nuances, frequently diving into in-depth policy. Asked about her paid speeches to Wall Street banks, Clinton pivoted, saying she was “the only one on this stage who did not vote to deregulate swaps and derivatives as Senator Sanders did.”
Pressed again to release the transcripts of her paid speeches, Clinton called on Sanders to release his tax returns.
Sanders, in response, said he would release his 2014 tax returns Friday.
The audience frequently seemed on Sanders’ side, with many people chanting along with him as he said his average campaign contribution was $27. But Clinton also earned cheers, which she acknowledged with a knowing smile as she cast herself as the hometown candidate.
“I love being in Brooklyn — this is great,” Clinton said.