Clinton, Sanders Brawl as Team Hillary Frets

Vermont socialist spooks former secretary of state into shrill performance

Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders went toe-to-toe Sunday night in a debate that got raw, with each hurling accusations about the other over issues such as guns, health care and federal spending.

In the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, Clinton cast herself as the guardian of the Obama legacy and sought to turn the fast-rising Sanders into the villain who would scramble President Obama’s work. But Clinton also looked spooked at times, lashing out at the 74-year-old Sanders as if he posed more of a threat than the polls already show.

A CBS/New York Times national poll from Jan. 10 showed Clinton leading Sanders 48-41, while the latest IBD/TIPP Poll put the margin at just 43-39. Meanwhile, state polling in Iowa and New Hampshire shows the pair virtually tied.

Though clocking in at under 50 percent in polls of all voters, Obama remains extremely popular among Democrats, continuing to post approval ratings at close to 80 percent. Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state, is clearly calculating that framing Sanders as a threat to Obama will work for her as Democrats get set to choose the president’s successor.

Sanders raged leftism and, like Clinton, spoke more forcefully than in any previous debate. Sanders, Vermont’s junior U.S. senator, promoted his newly released “Medicare for all” plan for universal health coverage. Clinton tried to turn it into some kind of attack on Obama. 

“The fact is we have the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “That is one of the biggest accomplishments of President Obama.”

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Sanders noted that he voted for the health law and serves on the committee that helped write it. But he said it falls short — 29 million people still lack insurance.

“Even more are underinsured,” he said.

Sanders said the country is getting “ripped off” by pharmaceutical companies. He acknowledged that middle-class Americans would pay higher taxes under his plan, but insisted they would more than would makeup for it by not having to pay insurance premiums.

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Sanders repeated his familiar attacks on “millionaires and billionaires” and Wall Street excesses. He painted Clinton has beholden to monied interests, both because of campaign contributions and personal speaking fees she has collected — including fees to the tune of $600,000 in one year from Goldman-Sachs.

“Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending millions and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?” he said. “I have doubts when people receive huge amounts of money from Wall Street.”

Clinton responded by again depicting herself as Obama’s defender. She noted that Sanders once called Obama weak and disappointing and suggested that a primary challenge for Obama in 2012 would be healthy.

“I can take that, but he’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street, and President Obama has led our country out of the Great Recession,” she said. “I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry and getting results.”

Gun control is perhaps the biggest area of vulnerability for Sanders in the Democratic primary because his D-minus rating from the National Rifle Association is not low enough for many liberal purists. He has tried tor neutralize the issue in recent days by distancing himself from a past vote protecting gun manufacturers and sellers from civil liability for crimes committed with legally purchased firearms.

Sanders said it should be a federal crime if people act as “straw men” in gun purchases. No one pointed out that the practice — in which someone with a clean criminal record stands in for the true buyer with a criminal record — already is a federal crime.

Clinton hammered away.

“I have made it clear based on Senator Sanders’ own record that he has voted with the NRA, with the gun lobby numerous times,” she said, as Sanders shook his head. “He voted against the Brady Bill five times.”

They spent lots of time in agreement. They patted themselves on the back for being the only Party that, supposedly, believes in science. They joined one another in attacking Donald Trump and other Republicans

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, an afterthought in national polls, fought to get noticed.

All three candidates competed to show sympathy for the plight of black America. Clinton agreed that black lives are “cheap” in America. Sanders decried a “broken” criminal justice system that harms minorities.

Several times, O’Malley attempted — unsuccessfully — to interject himself into a Clinton-Sanders back and forth. At one point, he meekly asked, “Can I get 30 seconds, too?” At another, he asked for 10 seconds to respond to a comment. But moderator Lester Holt ignored him and went to a commercial break.

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