Critic's Notebook: Clinton and Sanders Clash in Nastiest Democratic Debate Yet


The Democratic candidates jostled — sometimes bruisingly — to get to the left of each other on the immigration issue in this debate geared toward Hispanic viewers.

Just three days after their last round, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders got together Wednesday night for yet another one. If they keep meeting like this, people may start talking.

The event was held in Miami, in advance of next week's primaries in Florida and other states with high delegate counts. It began at 9 p.m. ET, which seems kind of late for South Florida. If they really wanted to attract an audience, they should have held it at 4:30 in the afternoon and billed it as the "Early Bird Special Debate."

The meet-up took on a new importance after Sanders' surprise victory in Michigan the previous day. It's easy to imagine that Clinton, who had clearly expected to wrap up things by now, must be thinking, "When is this old guy going down for the count?"

Those watching on CNN might have been a little perplexed at the beginning, as the intros for "El debate democrata" co-sponsored by Univision were delivered in Spanish, with many viewers no doubt muttering, "Wait, I pressed 1 for English." Fortunately, the National Anthem was sung in English, preventing mass heart attacks among Republicans. Meanwhile, Marco Rubio was probably asking himself, "Why aren't I in this? I would kill."

Not surprisingly given the locale, a large portion of the debate was consumed by immigration, with both candidates uncomfortably backing off from their past support of bills containing restrictive policies (no wonder Rubio skips so many votes). Here they fought hard to get to the left of each other on the issue, promising everything to new immigrants except personally greeting them at the border with cold milk and warm chocolate-chip cookies.

The moderators — Jorge Ramos, Maria Elena Salinas and Karen Tumulty — pushed hard on the candidates, pressing them when they were evasive and delivering hard-edged follow-up questions. They were particularly tough on Clinton for her past refusal to rule out deporting children.

"Are you flip-flopping on this issue or are you pandering to Hispanics, which some would call Hispandering?" asked Salnas (and yes, the word has entered the lexicon, sadly). It was followed by a clip of Clinton repeatedly using the phrase "due process," which by sheer dint of repetition began to sound as ominous as "forced sterilization." She went on to explain that she was not in agreement with the deportation policies of the "current administration," which is the term she uses only when she's running away from Obama.

Clinton gave tough defenses against queries into such oft-discussed topics as her e-mails and Benghazi. About the former, she complained that 104 of them were subject to "retroactive classification," a fancy phrase for "they're trying to screw me." And she shut Ramos down entirely when he asked about her possibly being indicted.

"Oh, my goodness, that's not gonna happen," she declared with righteous indignation. "I'm not answering that question," she huffed, possibly giving a preview of a whole new debate strategy. Later, Ramos was loudly booed by the crowd when he asked her about Benghazi, indicating that Democrats, at least, were tired of the issue.  

Sanders' stunning success in Michigan emboldened him to double-down on his newfound aggressiveness, which didn't work so well for him in terms of optics. While Clinton was frequently smiling and laughing — she practically dissolved into giggles when one question began by noting how long she's known Donald Trump — Sanders scowled and fumed throughout the evening, at times barely managing to contain his outrage. Long gone were the days when he prefaced every comment about her with the phrase, "With all due respect."

At one point, when Sanders was getting all Rick Lazio on her, Clinton deftly turned the tables by borrowing from her opponent's playbook from their previous debate.

"Excuse me, excuse me!" she bellowed.

When the issue of Clinton releasing the transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street banks came up, Sanders noted that she had been paid as much as $225,000.

"That must have been an extraordinarily wonderful speech," he declared, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "It should be shared with the American people." Clinton, who's clearly got cojones (to use the proper term under the circumstances), simply laughed at him.

She also got props from the crowd for the way she called Trump out for his attacks on Mexicans and other immigrants.

"I said basta!" she proclaimed, careful to hide the glossary of Spanish words written on her palms.

The evening's most powerful moment came with a question from a Guatemalan immigrant who tearfully described how her husband had been deported, with their five children not having seen their father in three years. Clinton, the wife of the former Empathizer-in-Chief, expertly showed her compassion.

"Please know how brave I think you are for coming here with your children to tell this story," she said sympathetically as Sanders looked on with jealousy. It made it all the more difficult for her a few minutes later when she was asked why only 37% of Americans consider her honest and trustworthy.

"I am not a natural politician like my husband and President Obama," she answered wanly.

Sanders took some heat over his proposal for free tuition in public colleges and universities. Asked if that policy would apply to Trump's grandchildren, or Clinton's, if they chose to go to a public university, he made a good point.

"Of course," he said, before adding, "I don't think they will."

When Ramos ominously announced "Welcome to Miami" late in the evening, you knew that things were about to get rough. And indeed they did, with Sanders being presented with a 1985 video clip of him making pro-Castro comments, remarkably looking as disheveled as a middle-aged man as he does today. But he parried the thrust nicely, launching into a denunciation of past U.S. regime change in Latin America that seemed to satiate the crowd that might otherwise have been screaming for his head.

Perhaps the most radical statement of the evening came from Clinton when she was asked about her criteria for a Supreme Court nominee. After thundering, "We have a Republican Congress trying to take away the Constitution," she said that she would look for judges who "have a heart." The originalists were no doubt frantically checking to see if that was mentioned in the Constitution.