The fifth debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders was their first appearance as a duet, and that helped to highlight some of their harmony – even as it heightened their crescendos of dissonance.
With Martin O’Malley having suspended his campaign earlier in the week, the two remaining rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination met in New Hampshire on Thursday night — on stage together for nearly two hours.
“I happen to respect the secretary very much; I hope it’s mutual,” said Sanders.
And Clinton reciprocated:
“If I’m so fortunate as to be the nominee,” she said, “the first person I will call to talk to about where we go and how we get it done will be Sen. Sanders.”
They agreed on several issues of current (if not past) foreign policy and on certain issues of government priorities. Sanders once again declined to criticize Clinton for her controversial use of a private server to handle State Department emails. Clinton twice demurred when asked to comment on certain tactics of the Sanders campaign.
But the two-hour showdown on MSNBC also featured flashes of the kind of conflict TV producers long for and pundits pore over.
Near the end, Sanders, the populist and perhaps quixotic visionary, described how change would come. All that was needed, he said, was for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to “look out the window and see a whole lot of people saying: ‘Mitch, stop representing the billionaire class; start listening to working families.’ And as president, that’s what I will work hard on.”
For her part, Clinton still seemed to aspire to be the nation’s pragmatic mechanic. When asked about adding or eliminating whole government departments, she replied: “I’m interested in making what we have work better.”
Sanders once again bore in on Clinton’s campaign donations and speaking fees from Wall Street and other elements of big business. He again said the “business model of Wall Street is fraud,” facilitated by government officials who had been its beneficiaries. And he contrasted his small-contribution fundraising to Clinton’s buck-raking among the rich and well-connected elites.
Seeming offended and in high dudgeon, Clinton denounced what she called “an artful smear.” She challenged Sanders to identify a single vote she had cast or changed to pay off a donor.
“If there’s something you want to say, say it,” she demanded. “Enough is enough.”
Sanders, however, continued his usual approach to this sensitive point, describing the enormity of the donations and other blandishments from Wall Street and the pharmaceutical industry in one breath, then talking about how favorably they are treated in the next.
On her six-figure paid speeches, which Clinton has struggled mightily to justify, she said she had spoken to these groups only about her knowledge of world politics. MSNBC moderator Chuck Todd asked whether she would release transcripts of those speeches. “I don’t know the status, but I’ll certainly look into it,” she replied.
Sanders, too, came in for some spanking on matters of ethics. One of his ads has featured praise from an Iowa newspaper that actually endorsed Clinton. Sanders said the ad never claimed he had received the endorsement, but MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow noted the ad was titled “Endorsement.”
On foreign policy, Clinton once again showed fluency and mastery of the field, while Sanders seemed stuck in first gear. But once again he offered his oft-repeated point: She may have the experience, but I had the judgment to vote against the Iraq War.
In all likelihood, the two-hour session on MSNBC did not change the dynamic of the pending contest in this state, the site of the nation’s first primary on Tuesday. Sanders had opened a 20-point lead on Clinton in two polls publicized just before the debate began.
The Vermont senator has always had something of a boost in New Hampshire from his next-door-neighbor status. He has been a fixture in regional politics for 40 years, and a hero to the young people here as in Iowa and elsewhere.
Sanders has come to embody the idea of a politician untainted by political money, or even by politics itself. He projects an anti-glamorous aura of ordinariness, concealing at times the sharpness of his mind and the sweeping scope of his views.
There seemed little chance any of that would be altered, by this debate or anything else likely to happen in the remaining days before the primary.
But Clinton was also aiming at an audience well beyond the 700 seats in the auditorium on the Durham campus of the University of New Hampshire. Her supreme confidence and sunny demeanor suggested she saw brighter days ahead, perhaps in voting venues well to the south and west.
The campaign moves to South Carolina and Nevada later this month. On March 1, a dozen states will vote. Most are in the nation’s Southeast. On March 15, Florida holds a primary that could be make or break for which candidate is trailing at that point.
But before then, there will be at least two more debates between these two surviving candidates for the 2016 Democratic nomination.