Democratic Town Hall: Economics, Race, Faith — and Beyoncé

Bernie Sanders

LGBT rights, which both candidates support, didn’t come up in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential town hall with Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, but subjects that did included their economic plans, racial issues, faith, forgiveness — and Beyoncé.

The town hall, broadcast on CNN, had each candidate appearing separately at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, five days before the state holds its Democratic presidential primary. They took questions from moderator Chris Cuomo and from the audience.

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, went first. He got queries about how he’d pay for the programs he’s proposed, such as free tuition at public colleges and universities, and universal health care. As he has before, he stressed that it would come from taxing speculative investment transactions, and he pointed out that other countries spend less on health care than the U.S. does while providing universal coverage.

A high school student asked how Sanders’s plan for free public higher education would affect private historically black colleges and universities. “You have my word that we will not only sustain but will substantially increase funding” for these schools, Sanders replied.

Cuomo showed a Clinton campaign commercial that casts Sanders as a “one-issue candidate” because of his focus on economics, and he replied that while that’s a key issue, he also talks about racial justice, universal health care, reproductive rights, and more.

Cuomo noted Sanders’s critique of Clinton for taking money from Wall Street firms, including for making speeches to them, and her statement that she’d release transcripts of these speeches if all other candidates would release transcripts of speeches they’d made to private groups.

When Cuomo asked Sanders what he’d release, the candidate replied, “I am very happy to release all of my paid speeches to Wall Street,” then made a throwing gesture: “Here it is, Chris. There ain’t none.”

During her portion of the town hall, Clinton said she’d expect all Republican presidential candidates to release transcripts of their paid speeches too. When Cuomo said this would never happen, she said the controversy over this issue really comes down to a question of who has the better plan to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and other financial institutions — and her plan is strong, said the former secretary of State, U.S. senator, and first lady.

Clinton also said she didn’t favor free public higher education for all, as it would benefit students from wealthy families as well as needy ones. She outlined plans for refinancing student loans are lower interest rates than recipients are currently paying and to make loan payments a percentage of the recipient’s post-college income.

On other issues, she promised to defend and expand the Affordable Care Act to bring health insurance to more Americans, and to find ways to get more money into the Social Security trust fund, while resisting Republican attempts to privatize Social Security.

Both she and Sanders noted the need to rid the criminal justice system of racism, but a question Clinton received on this topic involved Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, which some have denounced for negativity toward police. Clinton replied that the matter is far bigger than one performer, and that many police officers are performing their jobs well, while there need to be reforms so that officers see the use of force as a last resort, not a first one, and so that police and the communities they serve work together.

She also got a question on addressing racism from a young African-American woman in the audience who noted that people have treated her differently since she started wearing her hair in a natural style. Clinton stressed the need for respectful dialogue and listening to one another, as white people should recognize “that our experiences may not equip us to understand what a lot of our African-American fellow citizens go through every single day.”

She added, “We have serious challenges and I think it is important for people, and particularly for white people, to be honest about those. Otherwise, we are never going to be the nation we should be, we are never going to overcome our legacy.”

Sanders was asked why he does not have as much support among African-Americans as Clinton does. He said that he will win support with his message that he will address systemic racism in the criminal justice system and elsewhere, and that his economic programs will benefit African-Americans, along with everyone else, through job creation.

Sanders also asserted that many of the attacks on President Obama are based in racism. “We have been dealing in the last seven years with an unprecedented level of obstructionism against President Obama,” Sanders said, with Republicans’ resistance to letting him fill the Supreme Court vacancy only the latest. Attempts to delegimize the president have a racial component, the candidate said, noting that he and Obama are both sons of immigrants, and no one has questioned Sanders’s eligibility to be president.

Cuomo, noting that Republican front-runner Donald Trump has raised such questions, at least in the past, asked Sanders if that means Trump’s a racist. “I'm not a psychoanalyst,” Sanders responded. “Boy, would a psychoanalyst have an interesting time with Donald Trump.”

Clinton fielded a question about her trustworthiness and if it’s undermined by controversies about her actions as secretary of State, including her use of a personal email server. “I am well aware of the drip, drip, drip,” she said. “I have been in the public arena for 25 years. The facts are that every single time somebody has hurled these charges against me, which they have done, it has proved to be nothing.”

Toward the end of their sessions, each candidate touched on spiritual matters. Cuomo asked Sanders about his religious beliefs, and he said they’re rooted in recognizing that “we’re all in this together,” in treating other people the way he’d like to be treated. “When we do the right thing, we are more human,” he said.

Marjorie Wentworth, the poet laureate of South Carolina, asked Clinton why forgiveness — as practiced by the members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston after the fatal shootings there last year — is so rare, and what she’d do to tap its power. “I believe profoundly in the power of forgiveness,” said Clinton, who noted that she’s had to forgive others and be forgiven throughout her life. Forgiveness rises when people of different backgrounds and viewpoints talk and listen to each other, she said, with the best example being the truth and reconciliation process in post-apartheid South Africa.

Sanders closed with a promise not to let down those who trust him to fight for the interests of all Americans, and Clinton with a pledge that she is ready, willing, and able to meet the nation’s challenges as president. 

Watch some clips below, and find more at CNN.

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