Critic's Notebook: Clinton and Sanders Go For the Jugular at Brawl-Like Brooklyn Debate

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Just days before the crucial New York primary, the Democratic candidates tried to outdo each other on brash, take-no-prisoners New Yorkishness.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton held their ninth presidential debate in Brooklyn, and one thing was immediately clear. We weren't in Kansas anymore.

Unlike the mostly genteel crowds of previous events, the audience for this one was boisterous, making their feelings known in true New York fashion by expressing them … very loudly. The energy seemed to rub off on the candidates, who went at each other with a ferocity that was a far cry from the early skirmishes in which the most common phrase uttered was "with all due respect."

The event was held five days before the crucial New York primaries, and when was the last time you heard that word to describe them? It's no wonder the crowd was pumped up. They'd gotten used to their Empire State being a virtual afterthought in the electoral process, with U.S. presidents truly decided by early voters in places like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Both candidates could claim a home field advantage in this political Subway Series. Bernie, of course, was born in the borough, although he made sure to get out early. Still, it's the one place in America where nobody thinks he has an accent. Hillary served two terms as senator, and cheekily situated her campaign headquarters in Brooklyn (Take that, Bernie!). Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that her primary connection to the place is having had dinner once at Peter Luger.

At this late stage in the game, both candidates are probably thinking similar thoughts. Hillary is mightily peeved that Bernie is somehow still in the race. And Bernie is mightily surprised that he still is.

There wasn't much real news made this evening. How could there have been, by now? Bernie trots out his series of one-liners that have become so familiar that it's a wonder his supporters aren't yelling "Freebird." And Hillary practically hand delivers a copy of her resume to everyone in the audience.

Still, it was a barn burner, with even the candidates laughing during each other's more strident attacks, as if they had become punch drunk. Bernie dialed back on his previous statement that Hillary was "unqualified" to be president, saying that he only meant to question her judgment. Not long after, in a shameless bid of crowd pandering, Hillary proclaimed, "I love being in Brooklyn! This is great!" Needless to say, she didn't sound at all convincing.

When CNN anchor Dana Bash lived up to her name by asking Hillary about releasing the transcripts of her speeches, not once but three times, Hillary deftly pivoted by wondering when Bernie was going to release his tax returns.

"There are a lot of copy machines around," she pointed out, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Bernie stumbled through his response, saying that his wife Jane prepares their returns, and they've both been, well, busy. Considering that the event was being held just days before taxes are due to be filed, you could sense that Americans weren't feeling very sympathetic. Advantage: Hillary.

Asked about the criticisms leveled at him by the CEO of Verizon, Bernie responded like a dog handed fresh meat, pointing out that the business executive, who makes a salary of $18 million annually, should be negotiating with his striking workers. He might as well have said that with enemies like that, you don't need friends. Advantage: Bernie.

Minutes later, he floundered on the issue of gun control, not surprisingly, since the venue wasn't exactly receptive to some of his past positions. At one point he laughed at one of Hillary's comments, giving her the opportunity to severely chastise him.

"It's not a laughing matter," she exclaimed, as if scolding an unruly child, before spouting a litany of horrific statistics about gun deaths. Advantage: Hillary.

In a segment devoted to the 1994 crime bill, Hillary retreated behind Bill, saying that he was the president then, not her. Bernie, responding to a question about Hillary's past use of the term "superpredators," pounced.

"It was a racist term, and everybody knew it was a racist term," he declared. Advantage: Bernie.

Hillary also had a tough time during the segment on energy and climate change, with Bernie attacking her for her past support of fracking, which has been banned in New York State. Hillary pointed out that she was merely trying to discourage the use of coal, but by the time Bernie quoted the Pope on the issue she was done for. Advantage: Bernie.

Foreign policy would seem to be a subject that plays to Hillary's strengths. But that was before Obama recently said — on Fox News, no less — that the biggest mistake of his presidency was not properly handling the aftermath of the overthrow in Libya.

"Thanks, Barry," you could practically hear Hillary mutter, before lamely explaining that that the ensuing chaos was all Libya's fault. It gave Bernie the opportunity to launch into his usual spiel about regime change. He went on to say that he thought that European countries should pay more into NATO, which is one of the few things he and Donald Trump agree on. He then delivered an impassioned appeal for better treatment of the Palestinians. Hillary tried to counter by rattling off details of her Middle East negotiations, dropping more names than Page Six and adding such colorful details as "I flew all night," as if she was personally piloting the plane. Advantage, surprisingly: Bernie.

Told that economists have predicted that his education and health proposals would add $15 trillion to the national debt, Bernie said that he firmly disagreed, and that he would make up any shortfall with a tax on "Wall Street speculation." Pointing to other countries as an example, he announced, "I live 50 miles away from Canada." If Sarah Palin was there, she would have asked, "Yeah, but can you see it from your house?" Advantage: Hillary.

Bernie pressed Hillary about whether she would lift the cap on taxable income to help extend Social Security. "We are in vigorous agreement here, Senator," she responded. Advantage: Tie.

Naturally, both were asked about Merrick Garland's nomination to the Supreme Court. Hillary said that she wouldn't second-guess the president's judgment (indeed, she embraced Obama so tightly throughout the evening you had to remember which president she was married to). Bernie said that he would ask that the nomination be withdrawn, which gave Hillary the opening for an obviously well rehearsed but beautifully delivered rant about Republicans trampling on women's rights, garnering the biggest cheers of the evening. Advantage: Hillary.

Pointing out that he has spent most of his political career as an independent, Dana Bash asked Bernie, "Are you a Democrat?"

"Well, why would I be running for the nomination of Democratic candidate for president of the United States?" he responded, forgetting only to add, "Duh!"

Both candidates tried to sell themselves as the most electable, although Bernie was forced to admit, "We got murdered in the Deep South." He cheerfully added, "But we're out of the Deep South now," sounding like he'd been stopped by one too many Southern sheriffs at speed traps.

Both tried to establish their local bona fides in their closing statements.

"I grew up in Brooklyn, New York," Bernie announced, which was an applause line if there ever was one. When he finished, his supporters loudly chanted "Bernie! Bernie!" for what seemed like minutes, with Hillary grimly waiting with a twisted smile on her face.

"I'm very grateful that the people of New York gave me the honor of serving as your Senator," she gushed, before adding that she had been reelected to a second term. "Sure, that's well and good," you could imagine the crowd thinking. "But were you born here?"

 

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