Hillary Clinton tried to force Bernie Sanders to make himself unelectable on Thursday night.
Coming off what may prove to be a Pyrrhic victory in the Iowa caucuses and facing a potential double-digit drumming in next week’s New Hampshire primary, Clinton came out swinging.
Almost immediately, she characterized the Vermont senator as an unrealistic dreamer who is making promises that he cannot possibly keep. She argued that she was a sort of pragmatic progressive who might not paint a perfect picture of the future but would work hard to move the ball forward for Democratic causes.
And it all landed a little flat. It was more “Hope to Change” than “Hope and Change.” And after all the questions about her numerous Wall Street paydays as well as the continued controversy surrounding her State Department emails, one couldn’t help but think both issues will continue to haunt her.
Fittingly for a presidential primary race that has been defined by disagreements over definitions, things kicked off Thursday when Clinton, a fixture of American political life for the last 25 years, bristled at Sanders’s suggestion that she was the candidate of the “establishment.”
“She has the entire establishment or almost the entire establishment behind her,” Sanders said after Clinton noted that many elected officials in Vermont backed her. “That’s a fact. I don’t deny it.”
Clinton shot back, “People support me because they know me, they know my life’s work. They have worked with me, and many have also worked with Senator Sanders—and at the end of the day, they endorse me because they know I can get things done,” Clinton added, redefining her “establishment” credentials as an asset.
“Being part of the establishment is in the last quarter having a super PAC that raised $15 million from a whole lot of money from drug companies and other special interests,” Sanders quickly retorted.
As soon as the dreaded “e” word was used again, Clinton was ready to pounce, pushing Sanders to attack directly if he was going to attack at all.
“It’s fair to really ask what’s behind that comment. Senator Sanders has said that he wants to run a positive campaign, and I’ve tried to keep my disagreements over issues,” she said. “But time and time again by innuendo and by insinuation, there is this attack that he is putting forth, which really comes down to ‘anybody who ever took donations or speaking fees from any interest group has to be bought,’ and I just absolutely disagree with that, Senator.”
Clinton then characterized Sanders’s criticisms of her ties to Wall Street as an “artful smear” before insisting that she would never be influenced by the vast sums of money she’s received from Wall Street.
“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly,” Clinton said. “You will not find that I have ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I have received. I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my abilities, and I’m very proud of that.”
Semantics eventually bled into policy, and both candidates were backed into their least favorite corners: Clinton on her relationship with Wall Street, and Sanders with his murky views on foreign policy.
Clinton found herself on the defensive about several paid speeches she gave after leaving her secretary of state post—including those given to big Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs—an answer she flubbed in a CNN forum the night before.
“I think I may not have done the job I should in explaining my record,” Clinton acknowledged before noting that not every group she’s spoken to is as unpopular as the big banks.
She then posited herself as an avowed enemy of the financial sector’s excesses. “I think the best evidence that the Wall Street people at least know where I stand and where I have always stood is because they are trying to beat me in this primary,” Clinton, the foremost recipient of Wall Street’s largesse this cycle, insisted. Later, when asked by moderator Chuck Todd about whether she’d disclose the transcripts of her speeches to major banks, Clinton said she’d “look into it.”
Sanders, in a more relaxed way, then turned his fire not on Clinton but on Wall Street, his favored bête noire on the campaign trail.
But his moment in the sun was brief, because the dark cloud of foreign policy loomed right behind his favorite economic inequality talking points.
And it didn’t start off well.
“You know, Senator Sanders, nobody knows who your foreign policy advisers are,” Todd began his question. “You haven’t given a major foreign policy speech. And it doesn’t sound like all the time that foreign policy is a priority, other than when you’re asked about it, and you say you’re going to crush ISIS, as you said last night and earlier. You have not proactively laid out a foreign policy doctrine yet. Why?”
Sanders disagreed with Todd’s assessment, noting that he’d given a speech touching on foreign policy at Georgetown University last year. He then pivoted to his favorite talking point on the issue: his opposition to the Iraq War, which began 13 years ago next month. As a former secretary of state, Clinton had a lot more to work with here, even if she did support the war.
She knocked some statements from Sanders that have been criticized by experts, such as his seeming willingness to see Iranian troops take on a peacekeeping role in Syria. In response, Sanders again reminded the audience that he was against the Iraq War.
As in past debates, Clinton demonstrated that she knew what she was talking about, especially when it comes to the Middle East. But although her mastery of the details of America’s geopolitical role are evident, those foreign policy bonafides haven’t done much to woo early state Democrats to her side, and there’s no reason to think they will now.
Still, Sanders again showed he was unwilling to go for Clinton’s jugular—passing on a question to weigh in on her State Department emails, a fracas she all but dismissed as another vast right-wing conspiracy.
“Before it was emails, it was Benghazi, and the Republicans were stirring up so much controversy about that,” Clinton said.
When asked to weigh in, Sanders said, “There’s a process under way. I will not politicize it.”
In the end, it came down to where it started: experience versus vision, imagination versus pragmatism—but sealed with a big, kind of awkward, hug.
“On our worst days…we are 100 times better than any Republican candidate,” Sanders said as Clinton nodded.
On that, at least, they agree.
Gideon Resnick contributed to this story.