Democratic Debate Takeaways: Tensions Rise as the Race Tightens



The Democrats saved their most raucous debate for what could be their last. For two hours, Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont traded sharp attacks in Florida, a crucial battleground state that votes next week, over immigration policy, the government bailout of the automobile industry and, inevitably, the Republican front-runner, Donald J. Trump.
The immigration divide is deep

Immigration policy has been among the biggest substantive differences between Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton, and the two attacked each other on the issue while also struggling to explain their past positions. Mrs. Clinton criticized Mr. Sanders for opposing the 2007 immigration overhaul, and she pointed to his inconsistent explanations for doing so.

After being prodded by a moderator, Mrs. Clinton appeared to promise to end the White House policy of deporting undocumented immigrant children, a change from her position in 2014, when she said those children should be sent back to their countries and reunited with their families. Mr. Sanders also brought up how Mrs. Clinton waffled on driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants at a debate in 2007.

But what was most striking was the Democrats’ contrast on the issue with the leading Republican candidates, including Mr. Trump and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who have endorsed mass deportations, which will most likely be a focal point of the general election campaign.
The Midwest matters

Though the debate took place in Miami, both candidates devoted much of their time to the Midwest and the working-class voters who make up large sections of two of the states that will vote on Tuesday: Illinois and Ohio. Free trade is not popular with many voters in that industrial region, and Mr. Sanders’s populist message is resonating there, demonstrated most forcefully by his upset win over Mrs. Clinton in Michigan on Tuesday. If his claim that the immigration legislation would “drive wages down” hurts him with Hispanic voters in Florida, it could help him with workers in the Midwest.

Mrs. Clinton repeatedly attacked Mr. Sanders — as she did in Sunday’s debate in Flint, Mich. — by claiming he had voted against the auto bailout that was seen as saving the industry after the financial crisis of 2008. That attack has been described as partly true at best: Mrs. Clinton picked out a specific vote that Mr. Sanders cast because much of the money in question would go to help Wall Street. But the issue has resonance in places like Michigan and Ohio, and Mrs. Clinton, unbowed, indicated she would continue to use it against him going forward.
The Democratic race is getting testy

Both candidates came prepared for a slash-and-burn debate, fully briefed on their rivals’ records with attack lines at the ready. Mrs. Clinton came at Mr. Sanders with kitchen-sink-style charges from the left but only occasionally mentioned one of her core criticisms: that he makes pie-in-the-sky promises without any way to get them done.

Mr. Sanders, looking to capitalize on his win in Michigan, was ready to fight, denouncing her criticisms of his votes related to the auto bailout, insisting she was misrepresenting his record. He attacked her repeatedly over her speeches to Wall Street firms for large sums of money, even suggesting that she might be hiding something by not releasing the transcripts. Mr. Sanders is effective at wielding the political blade, which he reinforced by tartly saying, “Madame Secretary, I will match my record against yours any day of the week.”
Clinton is still trying to connect

For most of her life in the public eye, Mrs. Clinton has been criticized as too stiff or too closed off, too dull or too reserved, too inauthentic or too canned as a politician. She began road-testing a line a few weeks ago about her deficiencies as a politician. When she delivered it in the debate, saying that people know she is not a natural at this like her husband or like President Obama, it came across as authentic and rang true.

It was also something of a breakthrough for a candidate who has, over time, been loath to admit to making a mistake, and who does not like letting down her guard. With voters still, after decades, trying to get to know her, it could be a turning point.

Things could get uncomfortable

The toughest lines of the night were not all from the candidates: Many came from the moderators. One after the other came questions, most of them aimed at Mrs. Clinton, that cut to the bone. A few were downright uncomfortable.

Mrs. Clinton was asked about how she responds to continuing questions from voters about her trustworthiness. She was asked about the 2012 attacks on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead while she was the secretary of state, prompting boos from the crowd. She was asked about the investigation into her use of a private email server as secretary of state, and whether she would drop out if she was indicted.

That last question left her exasperated, and she said she would not dignify it with an answer. But the questions were a glimpse at the lines of attack she will face in the fall if she is the Democratic nominee.
Clinton does not want to attack Trump

This is not to say that Mrs. Clinton does not want to criticize Mr. Trump on policy: She is all for that. She made mocking reference to the “big, beautiful wall” that Mr. Trump has pledged to build along the United States’ border with Mexico and called his comments about Muslims and other groups “un-American.”

But Mr. Trump savaged Mrs. Clinton and her husband late last year when she used the Republican front-runner as a foil in her stump speeches. Both Clintons dropped their references to Mr. Trump shortly after that. When pressed at the debate about Mr. Trump’s character and whether he is “a racist,” Mrs. Clinton replied: “I’m not going to engage in the kind of language that he uses. I think we can make the case against him if he is the nominee, by pointing out what he has said.”

What to make of Mrs. Clinton’s failure to swing at a pitch right over the plate? She seemed to be signaling to Mr. Trump that she was not going to denounce him in personal terms — and to be hoping that he would respond in kind.

Posted by Ainhoa Aristizabal — Unruly Hearts editor

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