The ninth Democratic debate, a two-hour brawl between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in Brooklyn’s historic Navy Yard, really only came down to three minutes.
That was the amount of time it took on Thursday, from 9:15 to 9:18 p.m., for Sanders to try and seemingly fail to make the central case of the sharper-elbowed campaign he’s run ahead of the New York primary: that Clinton’s ties to Wall Street have made and would make her a shill for the billionaire class. On the trail, Sanders raises questions about Clinton’s character and her commitment to the cause of income inequality in connection to paid speeches she’s given to financial firms.
But asked to name one decision by Clinton that shows she favored Wall Street as a result of money she’s received, Sanders struggled to provide an example beyond arguing that the former senator should have moved to break up the big banks.
“Sure, sure. The obvious decision is when the greed and recklessness and illegal behavior of Wall Street,” said Sanders, “the obvious response to that is that you've got a bunch of fraudulent operators and that they have got to be broken up.”
Clinton, he added, “was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000.”
“Well, you can tell, Dana,” Clinton replied, addressing CNN moderator Dana Bash, “he cannot come up with any example, because there is no example.”
“I called them out on their mortgage behavior. I also was very willing to speak out against some of the special privileges they had under the tax code,” Clinton said, adding that she has supported the Dodd-Frank banking bill, “but I have consistently said that’s not enough. We've got to include the shadow-banking sector.”
Sanders cut in, but again failed to expand on the suggestion that Clinton would be less aggressive on Wall Street because of money she’s taken from the financial sector.
“Secretary Clinton called them out. Oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” said Sanders. “And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements? So they must have been very, very upset by what you did.”
After the debate, Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon argued that the moment had served to undermine “the principal argument that [Sanders] uses to attack her.”
“By now, he’s so deeply invested in this line of attack that you would have thought that he would have been ready to articulate a theory of the case as to how she’s been compromised by donations she received,” said Fallon. “But he whiffed.”
The debate was the true clash of candidates Clinton and Sanders had been previewing in the days leading up to the New York primary next Tuesday. The campaign in the state has seen some of the toughest moments of this year’s Democratic contest — with questions of judgement, qualifications, and honesty dominating public statements made by Clinton and Sanders on the Empire State stump.
Clinton’s tack was to question the depth of Sanders’ promised revolution. A New York Daily News editorial board interview, in which the Vermont senator appeared to struggle with policy specifics, was mentioned by Clinton and her surrogates constantly. The Sanders campaign dismissed the editorial board interview, but acknowledged it had become a burden in New York. By the end of the week, the campaign was attacking the paper — Jane Sanders called the ed board meeting “more of an inquisition” on Wednesday.
At the Navy Yard, Clinton mentioned the Daily News more than once.
Sanders’ pressure point has been Clinton’s ties to Wall Street. In recent weeks, he stepped up his criticism of Clinton’s paid and secret speeches to financial sector groups. On the stump in New York, he used the speeches, the donors to Clinton’s various super PACs, and her connection to Wall Street to question her judgement and suggest to progressives that Clinton doesn’t have their interests at heart.
A Sanders TV ad that first went up hours before the debate didn’t mention Clinton by name but sharpened the point that politicians like her are wrong for the country.
"Nothing will change until we elect candidates who reject Wall Street money," the ad’s narrator says over animation depicting a “rigged economy.”
That was just the broad strokes, though. Sanders said Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War might disqualify her to be president. Clinton said Sanders was a close friend of the gun lobby. Sanders said Bill Clinton needed to apologize for defending his wife’s use of the word “superpredator” back in the 1990s. Clinton noted Sanders voted for the bill she was defending when she used the comment. Sanders attacked Clinton for supporting fracking in the past, Clinton said Sanders set the environmental movement back by openly criticizing international deals made by President Obama.
All of it came up at the debate. The candidates yelled — into the audience, at each other, over each other — they took jabs, and they stood their ground.
Clinton drew out the week’s attack on Sanders as being weak on specifics, tied to the Daily News interview. Sanders stepped up his claims that Clinton had questionable judgement when it comes to the economic issues liberals care about.
Sanders struggled to make his case at the key moment, though. When he was asked exactly what Clinton had done or not done to appease the Wall Street donors he says influences her, he wasn’t able to come up with specifics.
After the debate, Sanders surrogates didn’t have much to add.
Tad Devine, chief strategist on the Sanders campaign, said the candidate had approached the question by successfully making “a broad case” against Clinton.
“I was fine with his answer,” Devine said. “He made a broad case against her that if you’re beholden to special interest money you’re not going to be able to make progress. That was the message of the debate and he delivered it from the beginning to the end.”
Top Sanders surrogate Nina Turner, a former state representative from Ohio, argued that the senator had in fact answered directly: “It was about her judgement or lack thereof versus his vision for this country. Period. And we felt that Bern tonight.”
Fallon, the Clinton spokesman, maintained that Sanders and his surrogates were unable to provide a specific answer to Bash’s questions because there isn’t one.
“That’s been our whole point,” Fallon said. “The reason why it’s pretty bad that he didn’t even have something to throw out there was because we have, at previous points, always argued that there’s no there there... Just as with the New York Daily News editorial board meeting that exposed the superficiality of his affirmative proposals, this exposed the hollowness of his principal line of attack.”
What the debate means in the long run isn’t clear. After days of saying his insurgent campaign had a shot at winning New York, he called it “a tough race for us” at a speech in Manhattan on Wednesday night. New York’s voter registration timeline and closed primary could make it hard for Sanders to turn his huge rallies across the state into votes on primary day, he said.
Clinton’s allies are happy to say that a solid win by their side in New York should mean the effective end of the Democratic primary. Delegate math — already showing Sanders as a heavy underdog for winning the nomination with pledged delegates — would become even harder for him to fight.
But Sanders’ top aides have vowed to press on until the end of the nominating process, and so far they continue to raise the vast sums required to do it.
In the debate hall, the primary stalemate played out in real time. Raucous supporters of both candidates cheered and booed; behind the scenes, campaigns cranked out more than the usual amount of rapid response email. Each side came dug in — and left that way.