In Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Flint, Mich., Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders highlighted policy differences along with many similarities, expressed sympathy for the people of Flint, and promised to stand up to Republican front-runner Donald Trump in the general election.
And Clinton, the former secretary of State, contrasted the tone of the Democratic candidates’ meeting with that of the Republican debate last Thursday. “We have our differences,” she said of herself and Vermont Sen. Sanders. “And we get into vigorous debate about issues, but compare the substance of this debate with what you saw on the Republican stage last week.”
Indeed, neither candidate called the other a liar or a con artist, nor did they discuss their genitalia, although there were some moments when they appeared impatient with each other. Moderated by out CNN journalists Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, the debate stayed focused on issues, encompassing the environment, economics, racism, the criminal justice system, and more, but not LGBT rights (both Clinton and Sanders are strong supporters).
The candidates opened the debate by offering support to the people of Flint, who have seen their water supply tainted by lead due to a state-ordered change in water sources in 2014, as a cost-cutting measure. Both said Gov. Rick Snyder should resign and those responsible at all levels of government to be held accountable. While some activists have called for criminal charges to be filed over the water crisis, both candidates said that should depend on what investigators uncover.
Bryn Mickle, editor of The Flint Journal, the local newspaper, challenged the candidates on whether their recent attention to the city is politically motivated. Both touted their records of fighting for troubled communities, and they added that Flint’s problems are common ones.
“This is not the only place where this kind of action is needed,” Clinton said. “We have a lot of communities right now in our country where the level of toxins in the water, including lead, are way above what anybody should tolerate.” Cleveland is one of them, she said.
Sanders said the Flint crisis is part of the failure of infrastructure nationwide. “The wealthiest country has to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure, our water systems,” he said. “I have a bill for a trillion dollars, it creates 13 million jobs rebuilding Flint, Mich., and communities all over the country.”
Sanders also noted the loss of industry and jobs in Flint over the past few decades, and he blamed them on “disastrous trade agreements” that he said Clinton supported. American workers, he said, should not have to compete with those who make 25 cents an hour in developing countries.
Clinton defended her record on trade, saying that when she was a U.S. senator from New York, she voted against the only trade pact that came up, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (an expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, approved when her husband, Bill, was president). She added that she opposed the recent Trans-Pacific Partnership.
She and Sanders clashed over the bailout of the auto industry, which she voted for and he voted against (it was part of a deal that bailed out Wall Street firms as well), and the Export-Import Bank, which she supports and he does not — Clinton touted it as a way to help U.S. companies create jobs, Sanders criticized it as benefiting the biggest, wealthiest companies.
Sanders again challenged Clinton to release transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street firms. She said she’ll do that when all other candidates, Republicans and Democrats, release transcripts of all their speeches to private groups. Sanders pointed out that he’s her opponent for the Democratic nomination and hasn’t given any speeches to Wall Street.
He also again critiqued her for accepting campaign donations from Wall Street financiers and other corporations, and noted that his campaign is funded entirely by small donors. Clinton responded that she has many small donors as well, and that the fact that she’s taken campaign contributions from Wall Street won’t interfere with her ability to regulate it.
Lemon raised the issue of race, citing the high incarceration rates of black men, and he referenced a song from the musical Avenue Q, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” to ask the candidates if they have any “racial blind spots.”
Neither one admitted to being “a little bit racist,” but they did note that as white people, they haven’t had the same experience as black Americans. “I think it’s incumbent upon me, and what I have been trying to talk about during this campaign, is to urge white people to think about what it is like to have ‘the talk’ with your kids, scared that your sons or daughters, even, could get in trouble for no good reason whatsoever like Sandra Bland and end up dead in a jail in Texas,” Clinton said.
Sanders added, “To answer your question, I would say, and I think it’s similar to what the secretary said, when you’re white, you don't know what it's like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it's like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.”
Both pledged to address systemic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system, and also to improve educational and employment opportunities for all. Clinton, challenged on her use of the term “super-predators” back in 1996 to describe some young men — widely seen as racially coded terminology — said this “was a poor choice of words.” (A black queer protester had confronted Clinton about this recently.) She and Sanders also both discussed their support of the 1994 crime bill (Clinton was first lady, and Sanders voted for it as a member of the U.S. House). Clinton now says the bill, criticized for its minimum-sentencing provisions, was a mistake, but it had some good provisions, such as an assault weapons ban and an increase in penalties for domestic violence; Sanders likewise now calls the bill mixed.
The father of teenage girl wounded in the shooting spree by an Uber driver in Kalamazoo, Mich., pressed the candidates on gun control. Sanders defended his record on this issue, including his opposition to liability for gun manufacturers and sellers if weapons are used to commit crimes. He said such liability would mean the end of gun manufacturing in the U.S. Both candidates said, however, that more has to be done to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people.
Toward the end of the debate, an audience member asked the candidates about religiou. She asked Sanders, “Do you believe that God is relevant, why or why not?” He replied, “The answer is yes, and I think when we talk about God whether it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear. And, that is to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.”
Cooper followed up by asking Sanders if it’s true, as some have asserted, that Sanders downplays his Jewish identity. He responded by noting that his father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and that he knew concentration-camp survivors as a childhood. “I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being,” he said.
The same audience member asked Clinton, a Protestant Christian, “To whom and for whom do you pray?” She said she prays by name for people she knows, for those who are going through difficult times, and for people in authority, even those with whom she disagrees, “trying to find some common ground, some common understanding that perhaps can make me more empathetic.”
She also said, “I pray for the will of God to be known that we can know it and to the best of our limited ability, try to follow it and fulfill it. I have said many times that, you know, I am a praying person, and if I hadn’t been, during the time I was in the White House, I would have become one.”
In this race for the White House, both candidates asserted they’ll be able to stand up to Trump. Cooper noted that Trump has pledged to talk throughout the campaign about Clinton’s emails, sent over a private server when she was secretary of State, and that he’s already called Sanders a communist. “That was one of the nice things that he said about me,” Sanders said.
Each made a case that they could beat Trump. “The last time I checked as of last night, Donald Trump had received 3.6 million votes, which is a good number,” Clinton said. “And there is only one candidate in either party who has more votes than him, and that’s me.” Sanders countered, “Almost every poll has shown that Sanders versus Trump does a lot better than Clinton versus Trump.”
Clinton added, “I think that Donald Trump's bigotry, his bullying, his bluster, are not going to wear well on the American people. So, I will look forward to engaging him because, you know, I don’t think we need to make America great again. America didn’t stop being great. We have to make it whole again. We have to knock down the barriers, we have to end the divisiveness, we have to unify the country.”
Sanders asserted, “Our campaign is generating an enormous amount of excitement. Just in the last two days we have won the caucuses in Maine — we won that tonight with a very large turnout. We won Nebraska, we won Kansas, and Kansas was the biggest turnout in their caucus history. I think we are exciting working-class people, young people who are prepared to stand up and demand that we have a government that represents all of us, not just the few.”
Sanders's win in Maine was by a margin of 64.3 percent to Clinton's 35.5 percent, according to the Associated Press. With delegates awarded proportionally, Sanders had gained 15 of the state's 25 delegates and Clinton seven, with the rest to by awarded.
Clinton won the Louisiana primary this weekend. Michigan will hold its Democratic presidential primary Tuesday, as will Mississippi.
For more, see The Washington Post’s annotated transcript here, and watch its “debate in three minutes” video below.