NEW YORK — Sen. Bernie Sanders, seizing on potential vulnerabilities for Hillary Clinton in the coming New York primary, repeatedly savaged her ties to wealthy donors and Wall Street banks during their debate Thursday night, delivering a ferocious performance that Clinton countered with steely confidence and her own sharp elbows.
Sanders, hoping to humiliate Clinton in her adopted home state in Tuesday’s primary, bluntly challenged her fitness for the presidency, saying she had the experience and intelligence for the job but adding, “I do question her judgment.” He listed her most controversial actions over the years, from voting to authorize the American invasion of Iraq to supporting some free trade deals and taking $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. While he did not repeat his recent remark that she was unqualified to be president, he constantly edged up to the line.
“Do we really feel confident about a candidate who says she will bring change in America when she is so dependent on big money interests?” Sanders asked. “I don’t think so.”
The debate at the Brooklyn Navy Yard featured a rambunctious and roaring crowd, which interrupted, booed and cheered both candidates, sports arena style, creating a highly charged atmosphere. The forum also revealed the increasing animosity between Sanders and Clinton, who no longer offer each another the polite rejoinders and carefully couched criticisms that characterized the early part of the campaign.
Feisty and frequently sarcastic, Sanders could barely contain his disgust with Clinton’s ties with Wall Street, a ripe target among liberals in New York City and in economically depressed upstate regions. After Clinton said she had stood up to bankers and “called them out” on their shaky financial practices before the recession, Sanders delivered his retort with the flair of a veteran Broadway actor.
“Secretary Clinton called them out — oh my goodness, they must have been really crushed by this,” Sanders said. “And was that before or after you received huge sums of money for speaking engagements?”
Clinton, who is comfortably ahead in polls of New York voters, seemed to relish taking swings at Sanders and standing up to his challenges. She also deployed her familiar tactic of allying herself with President Barack Obama, who is hugely popular among New York Democrats.
“Make no mistake about it — this is not just an attack on me, it’s an attack on President Obama,” Clinton said about the criticism of her use of a super PAC and acceptance of big-money contributions. As many audience members booed, Clinton grinned a little before saying, “This is a phony attack that is designed to raise questions when there is no evidence or support to undergird the insinuations.”
Sanders needs a landslide victory in New York to improve his slim chances at the Democratic nomination, and throughout the debate he appeared on the hunt for any new advantage. He highlighted a recent report about the failure of banks to plan for their own demise as evidence that his regulatory plans, and not Clinton’s, were tough enough to rein in bank executives. He pointed to some polls indicating that he would be a stronger opponent than Clinton in a general election against Donald Trump if he wins the Republican nomination.
The audience frequently seemed on the side of Sanders, with many people even chanting along with him as he said his average campaign contribution was $27. But Clinton also earned a good share of the cheers, which she acknowledged with a knowing smile as she cast herself as the hometown candidate.
“I love being in Brooklyn — this is great,” Clinton said.
Clinton stuck to defending her record of helping the state as a senator and to celebrating “New York values,” a shot at a phrase Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a Republican candidate, used disparagingly. But she was also often on the defensive as she sought to protect her lead.
Sanders came in for tough treatment from the debate moderators, led by Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash of CNN, who questioned him aggressively about his grasp of banking regulations and his struggle to provide policy details during an interview with The Daily News’ editorial board.
Bash also challenged Sanders to give an example of how Clinton was unduly influenced by big banks, to which he cited the financial excesses and greed that led to the recession.
“The obvious response to that is that you’ve got a bunch of fraudulent operations and they’ve got to be broken up,” Sanders said. “Now, Secretary Clinton was busy giving speeches to Goldman Sachs for $225,000 a speech. So the proper response, in my view, is we should break them up.”
Clinton drew strong applause when she bluntly said her opponent had evaded the question, adding, “He cannot come up with any example because there is no example.”
The most uncomfortable moment for Clinton came when the debate turned to the 1994 crime bill, which put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, built new prisons and banned certain types of assault weapons. The bill, which Sanders voted for and Clinton supported as first lady, has been widely criticized as contributing to the mass incarceration of African-Americans and to tensions between police officers and black communities.
Sanders minced no words about Clinton’s use of the term “superpredators” to describe urban gang members in a 1996 speech. And he explained why he had criticized former President Bill Clinton this week for standing up for Hillary Clinton on the issue.
“It was a racist term, and everybody knew it was a racist term,” he said, setting off rousing cheers from the crowd.
Clinton has said she regrets using the term, and on Thursday night she had no problem putting the blame for the crime bill on her husband. “He was the president who actually signed it,” she said.