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Clinton, Sanders Question Each Other's 'Judgment' To Be President

Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Brooklyn Thursday.
Seth Wenig
Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate in Brooklyn Thursday.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders faced off Thursday in one of the more contentious debates in the Democratic nomination fight to date.

The CNN-hosted debate in Brooklyn — where both campaigns have headquarters — comes just days ahead of the April 19 New York primary.

Trailing Clinton in polls and delegates, the Vermont senator kept up a steady stream of familiar attacks against the front-runner in an effort to carry on the recent string of victories he's enjoyed in nominating contests.

"Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and the intelligence to be a president? Of course she does." Sanders said. "But I do question her judgment."

Sanders ticked off a list of well-worn critiques against Clinton that included her support for the 2003 war in Iraq, trade pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and a lax attitude toward superPACs that are assisting her campaign.

"I've been called a lot of things in my life," Clinton responded in reference to the unqualified comment. "That was a first."

The exchange was an echo of a recent spat between the campaigns when Sanders suggested she was unqualified for the Oval Office — an assertion he later walked back. Clinton, in return, raised questions about Sanders' policy chops, particularly on foreign affairs and national security.

She reiterated those concerns Thursday at the debate, highlighting Sanders' recent editorial board interview with the New York Daily News in which he did not offer specifics on how he would enact policies like breaking up Wall Street banks.

"He could not explain how that would be done," she said.

Problems, pragmatism and insinuations

Throughout the evening, Clinton would return to that line of attack: Sanders is good at identifying problems, but falls short of practical solutions.

Clinton has been favored to win the primary in every New York poll, but Sanders has shown a persistent ability to upset pollster predictions and media expectations.

Sanders again unleashed a fusillade of his regular attacks against Clinton, including her campaign donations from Wall Street and her refusal to release the transcripts of private, high-paid speeches to groups, including Goldman Sachs.

Clinton leaned on her regular defense that she has never been influenced by those donations. She dodged persistent questions about releasing her speech transcripts to Wall Street banks, arguing that there should not be one standard for her, and another for everyone else.

"I will do it; I am going to release all of the transcripts of the speeches I gave on Wall Street behind closed doors," Sanders retorted.

The Vermont senator has never given one of those paid speeches.

A Sanders victory on Clinton's home turf would further unsettle the Democratic race, although Clinton currently remains favored to be the nominee. Sanders asserted Thursday night that he expects to win the nomination outright.

Minimum wage and guns

The debate also focused on issues important to New York Democratic primary voters, including an ongoing fight to raise the minimum wage. New York workers most recently protested this week as part of a long-running, union-led effort for a $15 minimum wage. Both candidates support a higher wage, but Sanders argued that he was first to support a wage increase, and at a higher level.

Clinton also criticized Sanders for his voting record on gun rights. "He has been, a largely very reliable supporter of the (National Rifle Association)," she said.

Sanders defended his past support for liability protection for gun manufacturers, arguing a gun seller should not be at fault for a crime committed with a legal gun sale.

Sanders' home state of Vermont has been skeptical of tougher gun laws and his voting record at times has reflected that skepticism.

A proxy fight over Obama's legacy

In some ways, Thursday's debate was a proxy debate within the Democratic Party over the legacy of President Obama. Clinton has characterized Sanders' attacks from the left against her as attacks on the president and his legacy.

"I really believe the president has done an incredible job against great odds and deserves to be supported," Clinton said in one exchange. "It's easy to diagnose the problem; it's harder to do something about the problem."

Sanders flicked at Clinton's tactic in an exchange over foreign policy. "I know you keep referring to Barack Obama all night here," Sanders said, but he reiterated criticism that the Obama administration has a muddled policy with poor results in the Middle East and in recent conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Clinton and Sanders also faced off on expanding health care and protecting Social Security, but their positions have been well explored in the primary fight. Clinton wants to expand and tweak the Affordable Care Act, while Sanders continues to call for a single-payer system. Both Democrats support maintaining the Social Security system.

Sanders drew a sharp distinction when he reiterated his stance that if he is elected president, he would ask Obama to withdraw Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court so that Sanders could appoint someone who would vote in favor of tougher campaign finance laws.

Sanders has enjoyed a recent string of victories in states that predominately hold caucuses (Wisconsin being the exception over that stretch). But Clinton outpaces him with delegates, superdelegates (elected officials and party elites who can vote however they want at the convention) and the popular vote.

Sanders picked up the endorsement from one high-profile superdelegate this week, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., but Clinton maintains a significant lead with pledged delegates, and her lead is even greater when superdelegates are factored in. That's why it's so key for Sanders to get those superdelegates to flip alliances.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.