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Squabbles, Sarcasm, and Side-eye as Sanders and Clinton Square Off at New York Debate

The Democratic candidates faced off in Brooklyn, New York ahead of the state's critical primary on April 19.

by Liz Fields
Apr 15 2016, 1:28pm

Photo by Carlos Osorio/AP

It took less than 10 minutes for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to completely lose their cool and start yelling over each other at the Democratic debate at Brooklyn's Navy Yard on Thursday night.

Fresh off a heated week of campaigning, during which both campaigns upped attacks on each other, the candidates went head to head over a series of critical issues that have reached a peak in recent days, including Wall Street reforms, gun violence, the minimum wage, and whether each are qualified to be president. It was a show of spiking tension ahead of the high-stakes New York primary on April 19, and neither candidate held back.

It was clear from the beginning that the CNN debate moderators were angling for some mudslinging, after they launched straight into a question directed at Sanders about Clinton's judgment and qualifications. The Vermont senator began with brief niceties noting Clinton "of course" has the "experience and intelligence" to be president, before pivoting to slam what he saw as poor judgment over her vote for the Iraq War and taking "tens of millions" from special interests through her super PACs.

Clinton retorted by bringing up Sanders's April 4 interview with the New York Daily News (for the first, but not last time Thursday night), in which he was not able specifically lay down how he would break up big banks. "Talk about the kinds of problems he had answering questions about his core issues," Clinton said. "Talk about judgment."

The former secretary of state then also made a tenuous claim: that Sanders's attack on her use of super PACs was also an attack on President Obama. Obama, also used super PACs during his campaign, but went on to implement Wall Street reforms like the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill, she said, attempting to dissuade voters of the notion that politicians are necessarily swayed by contributions from special interests.

Related: Clinton, Sanders and Democratic Party Will Sue Arizona Over Alleged Voter Suppression

When the moderators challenged Sanders to name an instance where Clinton had been influenced by donations, he hit again at her series of speeches to Goldman Sachs, for which she received high speaker's fees. The exchange dripped with sarcasm. At one point, Sanders rolled his eyes and waved his hands around mockingly, after Clinton claimed she stood up to the big banks when she was a senator.

"Oh my goodness," he said, "They must have been really crushed by this. And was that before or after you received huge sums of money by giving speaking engagements?"

There were plenty of more eye rolls throughout the night, coupled with finger pointing, squabbling, and huffing and puffing. The candidates, who had until this point been generally civil and even-toned during such forums, compared with their Republican counterparts, had to be told by moderators that the American people couldn't hear them if they kept yelling over each other.

The moderators also grilled the candidates on a number of attacks they made against each other while campaigning in New York, including Clinton's claim earlier in the week that a portion of guns used in crimes in New York originated in Sanders' home state of Vermont. Several news outlets have called the claim misleading.

"Are you seriously blaming Vermont and implicitly Senator Sanders for New York's gun violence?" CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked.

"Of course not," Clinton said, before continuing to pummel Sanders over his gun record. Clinton accused Sanders of supporting the National Rifle Association (NRA) and voting several times against legislation mandating background checks.

Related: Jane Sanders Says Bernie Will Vote for Hillary If She Wins the Nomination

Sanders again noted that he has a "D-minus" rating from the NRA. "And, in fact, because I come from a state which has virtually no gun control, I believe that I am the best qualified candidate to bring back together that consensus that is desperately needed in this country," he said.

The pair also tousled on the issue of a $15 minimum wage, with Sanders claiming Clinton had only just jumped on the bandwagon in supporting it. Clinton had backed pushes for a $15 minimum wage in states like New York and California, which recently signed off on deals to lift wages to that amount, but has been more conservative in her advocacy for a federal minimum wage, pushing instead for $12 per hour. She claimed, "I have said the exact same thing" all along.

Last week, Clinton's role in advocating for her husband's 1994 crime bill, which many attributed to the era of mass incarceration, returned to the spotlight after Bill Clinton's encounter with Black Lives Matter activists at a Philadelphia rally hit headlines. Hillary Clinton advocated for the bill as first lady and Sanders voted for it as a then-congressman. Asked at the debate if the legislation was a net positive or a mistake, Clinton answered that there were some positive aspects like the Violence Against Women Act, but also acknowledged that certain provisions overextended prison sentences, which heavily impacted communities of color.

"I'm sorry for the consequences that were unintended and that it had a very unfortunate impact on people's lives," she said. "I want white people to recognize that there is systemic racism. It's in employment, it's in housing, but it's in the criminal justice system also."

The pair later traded punches over Middle East Peace, during which time Sanders accused Clinton of failing to stand up for the Palestinians in the Gaza conflict. The senator served his approach to the crisis straight-up, notably being the only presidential candidate to specifically criticize Israel for its handling of attacks. He reiterated that he believed Israel had the right to defend itself, but that "if we are ever going to bring peace... we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity."

Related: Bernie Sanders Suspends Jewish Outreach Director Who Wrote 'Fuck You, Bibi'

Clinton maintained her more hardline pro-Israeli approach, saying the Israelis "did not seek this kind of attack, they do not invite rockets raining down on their towns and villages." She also highlighted her hands-on conflict resolution experience there, and successes in brokering ceasefires between the Israeli government and Hamas.

In closing statements, both candidates rehashed their ties to the Empire State. Sanders, who was born in Flatbush, Brooklyn, as the "the son of a penniless immigrant, a proud American," elicited loud cheers after encouraging voters to "stand up, fight back" at special interests and corporations. "This country has enormous potential if we have the guts to take on big money," he said.

Clinton also brought up her eight years of experience serving as US senator for New York, including over the post 9/11 years, and added a parting shot at Sanders, who has been bashed for proposing a raft of policies that critics say he has no hope of achieving in the current political system.

"I am humbly asking for your support," she said. "We won't just make promises, we'll deliver results!"

The New York primary could either be one of the last opportunities for Sanders to change the course of the nomination race, or the pebble in the senator's shoe that allows Clinton to sprint ahead to the July convention. According to the delegate math, Sanders will need to pull up a major upset here to eat away significantly at Clinton's lead, since the Democratic Party's proportional allocation system ensures that each will receive at least some delegates to show for their campaigning efforts over recent days.

Sanders has nearly cut the polling gap with Clinton by half in the last couple of months, but still trails behind the frontrunner by some 10-17 points in recent surveys in the state. At a sprawling rally at New York's Washington Square Park Wednesday night that drew an estimated 27,000 people, Sanders acknowledged that the New York contest would be a "tough primary" to win, because it is closed to independent voters. The state also has the earliest deadline for voters to register for a party in the country, which activists and independents say disenfranchises voters, particularly young people and minorities.

Related: Sanders Draws 27,000 to Washington Square Park Rally Ahead of Must-Win New York Primary

Immediately after the debate, Sanders boarded a charter straight to Rome, where he will spend the next two days at a conference held by the Vatican. Clinton will remain in New York, taking full advantage of an extra two days of campaigning in the state while her rival is out of town.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields