Hillary Clinton Bests Bernie Sanders in New York Debate


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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Reeling from a recent string of losses to Bernie Sanders — and determined to stave off a potentially game-changing upset Tuesday in her adoptive home state — Hillary Clinton arrived at the ninth Democratic presidential debate here eager to dispatch Sanders' nettlesome challenge, unleashing a torrent of attacks with the aim of discrediting the Vermont senator as a potential president and commander-in-chief.

For Clinton, the evening went about as well as she could have hoped.

Read more: Clinton and Sanders' New York Debate Will Highlight the Democratic Race's Big Irony

"I love being in Brooklyn," the onetime New York senator declared at the outset of the debate. "This is great."

Though Sanders was often in full fighting form during in the two-hour, CNN-hosted slugfest, Clinton held her own through much of the evening — and succeeded at times in reducing her normally voluble opponent to flustered murmurs on issues ranging from financial regulation to foreign policy.

A rough night: While the circumstances under which Sanders took the stage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard — virtually tied with Clinton in national polls, and with the wind at his back after landslide victories in the Midwest and West — attested to his surprising strength as a candidate, his answers Thursday night underscored his persistent limitations.

Days after Sanders spectacularly struggled when pressed on policy specifics in a New York Daily News interview, he badly fumbled yet another response on Wall Street reform — a signature issue of the progressive insurgent's campaign.

Asked to identify a policy stance Clinton had adopted as a result of taking money from Wall Street, Sanders fell back on his standard boilerplate.

"The obvious decision is when the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street brought this country into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the '30s, when millions of people lost their jobs, homes and life savings," he said. "The obvious response to that is you've got a bunch of fraudulent operators, and that they have got to be broken up. That was my view way back, and I introduced legislation to do that. Now, Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech."

Seth Wenig/AP

Addressing moderator Dana Bash, Clinton fired back, "As you can tell, Dana, he cannot come up with any example, because there is no example."

When the focus of the debate shifted to foreign policy, the contrast between Sanders and the country's former top diplomat could not have been starker.

While Sanders railed against Israel's allegedly "disproportionate" response to Palestinian terrorism — never defining the parameters of an acceptable response — Clinton could boast, "I negotiated the cease-fire between Israel and [the Palestinian militant group] Hamas in November of 2012."

And Clinton undercut Sanders' critique of her support for U.S. intervention in Libya, noting that Sanders backed a Senate resolution calling for democratization in the country.

"I know you're not shy when you oppose something, senator. So, yes, [the resolution] was unanimous. That's exactly right, including you," she said.

Sanders fired back that supporting democracy and supporting military-imposed regime change are two entirely different propositions — but in recounting how she did her "due diligence" in assessing the United States' realistic options in Libya, Clinton offered herself as a global stateswoman with a history of making hard choices (to coin a phrase) about the responsibilities of power. Sanders, meanwhile, looked the part of the armchair critic.

Clinton's signature pragmatism was also on full display as she sought to fend off Sanders' attacks on her climate change record, which he depicted as insufficiently progressive.

"It's easy to diagnose the problem. It's harder to do something about the problem," she said, lauding President Barack Obama's use of executive actions to curb global warming despite what she called "implacable hostility" from congressional Republicans.

A Brooklyn brawler: But Sanders barred no holds Thursday, reiterating his view that Clinton lacked the judgment necessary to serve as president.

"Does Secretary Clinton have the experience and intelligence to be president?" Sanders asked. "Of course she does, but I do question, I do question her judgment. I question a judgment that voted for the war in Iraq — the worst foreign policy blunder in the history of this country — voted for virtually every disastrous trade agreement which cost us millions of decent paying jobs.

"And I question her judgment about running super PACs which are collecting tens of millions of dollars from special interests, including $15 million from Wall Street. I don't believe that that is the kind of judgment we need to be the kind of president we need."

Yet even here, Clinton seemed to get the better of the exchange.

Referring to Sanders' earlier charge that those policy positions rendered her unqualified to serve, Clinton said, "I've been called a lot of things in my life. That was a first."

A risky strategy? With a healthy delegate lead over Sanders and polls showing her likely to prevail in New York, Clinton's performance lengthened the odds that he would upend the race next week.

But might her withering questioning of Sanders' seriousness backfire — alienating progressive voters she'll need to turn out in large numbers in a general election?

It's not inconceivable that many Sanders backers, bitter and disillusioned in the wake of another establishment triumph, may stay home in November if Clinton is the Democratic standard-bearer. But Clinton's calculation is simple: With deeply polarizing figures Donald Trump or Ted Cruz likely to secure the Republican nomination, she'll ultimately have little trouble ginning up Democratic enthusiasm in the fall — even if it's enthusiasm about voting against a candidate.

For now, Clinton's objective is to keep Sanders at bay. Thursday night's debate may not singlehandedly achieve that goal — but it won't hurt.