The Democratic debate ended with a “low blow.”
And while it took about 90 minutes, the two Democrats running for their party’s nomination finally got fired up over who loves President Obama more.
That part, at least, made sense. After a debate that featured issues as esoteric as the 1953 coup in Iran and Henry Kissinger’s role in the rise of Pol Pot, the two candidates latched onto an issue that, in some sense, provides a central rationale for both their efforts: Hillary Clinton as the guardian of Obama’s legacy, and Sanders as the insurgent progressive who insists the president could have done more.
Coming off a double-digit loss to Sanders in New Hampshire, there was an expectation that Clinton was going to bring the heat and hit Sanders hard.
And she did.
After a question about whom they would consult on important foreign policy decisions, Clinton mentioned Nelson Mandela, but then quickly parlayed her response into a criticism of Sanders.
“I want to follow up on something having to do with leadership, because, you know, today Senator Sanders said that President Obama failed the presidential leadership test,” she said. “And this is not the first time that he has criticized President Obama. In the past he has called him weak. He has called him a disappointment.
“He wrote a foreward for a book that basically argued voters should have buyers’ remorse when it comes to President Obama’s leadership and legacy.”
(Are you listening, South Carolina African-American voters, who constitute more than half of the Democratic electorate there? That man with the ill-fitting suit doesn’t like Obama.)
She continued to browbeat Sanders about his criticisms of his would-be predecessor, before winding up to the final punch.
“And it is the kind of criticism that we’ve heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans,” she said. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Sanders was visibly taken aback—given that it may have been the first time in his life he was compared to a Republican—and stammered, “Madam Secretary, that is a low blow.”
Sanders then extolled his love for the president, noting that he worked with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in the Senate.
“President Obama and I are friends. As you know, he came to Vermont to campaign for me when he was a senator,” he said.
“But I think it is really unfair to suggest that I have not been supportive of the president… Do senators have the right to disagree with the president? Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.”
Clinton was undeterred.
“You know, Senator, what I am concerned about is not disagreement on issues… calling the president weak, calling him a disappointment, calling several times that he should have a primary opponent when he ran for re-election in 2012, you know, I think that goes further than saying we have our disagreements,” she retorted.
But Sanders got the last jab.
“Well, one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate,” he said.
And that was the most exciting part of a debate, which essentially covered much of the same ground as the one before it.
It hit many of the same notes we’ve seen before—arguing over the differences between their health-care policies, Clinton’s record on Wall Street, and Sanders’s foreign policy record.
After losing women in two contests, Clinton still couldn’t articulate why they or the youths didn’t want to vote for her (she lost voters ages 18-29 by giant margins in Iowa and New Hampshire) and seemed intent on painting Sanders as some sort of Pied Piper leading all the millennials away with his promises of free college.
“[W]e have a special obligation to make clear what we stand for, which is why I think we should not make promises we can’t keep, because that will further, I think, alienate Americans from understanding and believing we can together make some real changes in people’s lives,” Clinton said after criticizing a Sanders pledge to make single payer health care a reality and Medicare available for all.
It was a theme Clinton kept hammering all night—that the candidates weren’t that different in terms of goals, but only she had the policy know-how and political acumen to actually get it done.
And while it’s unlikely that anyone who already thought Clinton was commander-in-chief material changed their mind after the debate, that’s probably a good thing for Hillary.
Because while she suffered a loss in New Hampshire and a razor-thin win in Iowa, she’s heading into South Carolina and Nevada—two states where the weather is warmer, and so is the reception to Clinton and her policies.