MILWAUKEE — Bernie Sanders offered something new on Thursday night: He embraced his past critiques of President Obama, and challenged Hillary Clinton to prove they’re a liability.
On Thursday, Clinton and Sanders met for the second time on stage as a pair, for a Democratic debate hosted by PBS on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. For the most part, Sanders and Clinton stayed mired in the idealism-vs.-pragmatism trench warfare that’s so far made it hard for either candidate to advance significantly or lose much ground on the debate stage.
But near the end of the 90-minute forum, Clinton turned a question about leaders she admired into calling Sanders out for his past criticism of Obama.
“The kind of criticism that we've heard from Sen. Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans,” Clinton said. “I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama.”
Sanders’s rejoinder: “Madam Secretary, that is a low blow.”
It’s true that Sanders criticizes Obama regularly on the campaign trail and has had a harsher take on him in the past — even calling for a primary opponent to face him from the left for a time in 2011. He eventually endorsed the president for re-election in 2012, but not before some tough words for him. On the presidential campaign trail himself last year, Sanders sought to minimize the past critiques.
But it’s also true that the Sanders critique of the president channels the activist left his campaign relies on to fuel its improbable and sustained rise. On the debate stage, he leaned in.
“You know what? Last I heard we lived in a democratic society,” he said. “Last I heard, a United States senator had the right to disagree with the president, including a president who has done such an extraordinary job.”
“So I have voiced criticisms. You're right. Maybe you haven't. I have,” Sanders went on.
“I think it is really unfair to suggest that I have not been supportive of the president. I have been a strong ally with him on virtually every issue,” he added. “Do senators have the right to disagree with the president? Have you ever disagreed with a president? I suspect you may have.”
“One of us ran against Barack Obama,” Sanders said. “I was not that candidate.”
Sanders ongoing criticism of Obama is for failing, as Sanders sees it, to put his grassroots support to work after the election was over in 2008. Obama told his base, Sanders often says, thanks for the vote but “I will take it from here.”
This disagreement is, essentially, Sanders’s entire pitch for his presidency. Sanders says he’ll be able to hold progressives together and turn them into an ongoing grassroots “political revolution” that pushes politics left through sheer force of will. He repeated that take to MSNBC this week, the interview that Clinton referred to when she said he sounded like a Republican.
Sanders supporters say Sanders’s plan to lean into his disagreements with Obama — to cast himself as loyal opposition, a representative of a left wing frustrated under Obama — will actually pay off in the end, even if Obama remains very popular with Democrats, and especially with the black voters who make up a significantly larger share of the electorate in Nevada and South Carolina.
“At the end of the day, this is where we get into the difference between established politics and the status quo — i.e., I will go along to get along — versus the ‘I fight for the people.’ It is ok to disagree, we do it all the time,” said Justin Bamberg, the high-profile South Carolina lawmaker and attorney. He was on hand in Milwaukee as a Sanders surrogate.
“I do not think that is going to affect the African-American vote in the state,” Bamberg said. “You show me somebody that everybody agrees with and you’re probably looking at Jesus.”