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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

What We Learned from Watching Clinton and Sanders Do Battle Thursday Night

In the wake of the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic presidential candidates have found some new things to fight about.
February 12, 2016, 5:00am
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

It could still be months before a Democratic candidate emerges as the clear winner in the 2016 presidential race, and at Thursday night's debate in Milwaukee, the country saw their relationship as longstanding rivals take shape. If Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were a couple, the country watched them gripe about those never-ending fights that can surface at any party or restaurant: Sanders doesn't think Clinton can call herself a progressive if she has Super PACs, and Clinton thinks Sanders's plan to make public college free is too pie-in-the-sky. Take it outside, you guys.


But like any lasting relationship, they managed to find new stuff to fight about. Here are some new debates that might crop up again anytime between now and the Democratic National Convention this summer.

Healthcare Reform

Yes, this is already a longstanding fight between Clinton and Sanders. The latter is running on a more radical platform of re-reforming the system to provide single-payer healthcare, or so-called "Medicare For All," funded by the taxpayer. Clinton meanwhile, keeps pointing out that another healthcare war sounds like a drag.

What's different is that now Clinton is doubling down on the status quo under Obamacare, which she notes, used to be called HillaryCare.

"We're not England. we're not France," she said Thursday. "We inherited a system of employer-provided insurance that was set up during World War II. So what we have tried to do is to build on the healthcare system we have." In other words, the socialized systems in those countries were established while we were establishing our more capitalistic system here in the US, and that's what we're stuck with.

Sanders's answer—that healthcare is "a right for the American people, not a privilege"—sounded pretty familiar.


PBS moderator Judy Woodruff mentioned that Clinton lost the support of women to Sanders in the New Hampshire primary earlier this week. Clinton's answer was gracious: "I have spent my entire adult life working toward making sure that women are empowered to make their own choices," she said, "even if that choice is not to vote for me."

There wasn't much for Sanders to add, since the question itself was essentially a compliment to his ability to win female supporters. But swung for the fences anyway, and pointed out that "when it comes to a woman having to make a very personal choice," Republicans want big government, and "if that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what hypocrisy is." The observation is certainly not new, but it won Sanders some big applause.

White People

Gwen Ifil, one of the other moderators, threw a knuckleball of a question during the race portion of the debate: "I want to talk about white people, OK?" she said. Ifill touched on some of the issues affecting white people—poverty, short lives, and changing demographics—and then tossed out a stumper of a question: "Don't they have a reason to be resentful?"

Clinton professed to be "deeply concerned about what's happening in every community in America, and that includes white communities." Then she brought up South Carolina Democratic Congressman Jim Clyburn's 10-20-30 plan to address generational poverty.


Sanders, never one to miss an opportunity to talk about general income inequality in the US, saw his opening. "We can talk about it as a racial issue, but really it's an economic issue," he responded.


Accepted wisdom holds that Sanders is out of his element on the subject of foreign policy, and this debate devoted serious time to the issue, which meant that Sanders couldn't skirt it. Clinton demonstrated that she remains quite fluent in foreign policy-ese, tossing out city names like Raqqa, Ramadi, and Mosul with reckless abandon.

For the most part, Sanders kept up. It looked like the Vermont independent's plan for poking holes in Clinton's perceived foreign policy expertise is to use historical references from the mid-20th century. For instance, he criticized Clinton's policy of toppling dictators like Muammar Gaddafi by referencing the US and UK-led toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953, something that helped push Iran to where it is today politically.

Then he criticized Clinton for her admiration of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, calling him "one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country," and—more savagely—"not my kinda guy," because of his policies on Cambodia that spurred the rise of a genocidal regime in 1975.

Clinton countered that Kissinger's policy of opening up relations with China led to an "incredibly useful relationship." She didn't seem fazed by Sanders bringing up her connection to the Nobel Peace Prize winning statesman. But a good way to beat Sanders at his own game if this happens again at the next debate, might be to crack open some history books.

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