By Tory Newmyer
March 7, 2016

Hillary Clinton turned in another steady and substantive performance in a head-to-head matchup with Bernie Sanders that turned chippy by Democratic standards but wonky compared to the latest Republican free-for-alls.

At this point in the Democratic primary, Clinton only needs to avoid a disaster. Though Sanders won two of three contests on Saturday, Clinton is building a delegate lead that is becoming insurmountable. In Michigan, for example — where the candidates convened on Sunday, in Flint, for the CNN-hosted debate — Clinton holds a wide lead ahead of the state’s Tuesday primary.

The debate swung from the hyperlocal, with an initial focus on the crisis surrounding the lead contamination of Flint’s water supply, to the historical and global, as Clinton and Sanders squared off over their records on guns, trade, and economic development. One standout point of contention straddled the two: Clinton argued that Sanders erred badly by opposing the Obama administration’s auto bailout, which has been credited with saving the domestic car industry; Sanders turned the criticism around, noting that the payout was folded into a larger package for Wall Street that benefited Clinton’s allies in that sector. (Specifically, Congress wrapped the funds for carmakers into an authorization to release the second tranche of the Wall Street bailout, known as TARP.)

That exchange precipitated perhaps the most fiery back-and-forth of the Democratic campaign to date. After Clinton highlighted their divergent votes on the package, Sanders began to respond, “If you are talking about the Wall Street bailout, where some of your friends destroyed this economy…” and Clinton began to interrupt. “Excuse me, I’m talking,” Sanders said, to which Clinton replied, “If you’re gonna talk, tell the whole story, Senator Sanders.”

Of course, that looked like high tea next to how the Republicans have been savaging each other recently. And shortly thereafter, when CNN moderator Anderson Cooper slow-pitched Sanders an opportunity to attack Clinton for refusing to release the transcripts of the highly-paid, private speeches she’s delivered to banks, he helped change the subject instead.

Clinton had just repeated the dodge she’s stuck with on the issue, pledging to release the transcripts “as long as everybody else does, too.” Sanders, invoking a joking tone bordering on sarcasm that characterized much of his Sunday night performance, replied, “Secretary Clinton wants everybody else to release it, well, I’m your Democratic opponent, I release it, here it is [throwing up his hands]: There ain’t nothing. I don’t give speeches to Wall Street for hundreds of thousands of dollars, you got it.” But then he shifted to make an entirely separate point, decrying the lack of criminal prosecutions of Wall Street executives. Clinton was happy for the diversion. “I think we are in vigorous agreement on this,” she said.

Clinton’s performance indicated that despite her delegate lead, she is taking nothing for granted as she seeks to wrap up the Democratic nomination. She opened the debate by matching Sanders’s call for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over his role in allowing the Flint water crisis to spiral. And she deftly exploited the fact that on gun control, she lines up more closely to the liberal base than does Sanders, from rural, gun-loving Vermont.

Clinton’s performance indicated that despite her delegate lead, she is taking nothing for granted as she seeks to wrap up the Democratic nomination. She opened the debate by matching Sanders’s call for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to resign over his role in allowing the Flint water crisis to spiral. And she deftly exploited the fact that on gun control, she lines up more closely to the liberal base than does Sanders, from rural, gun-loving Vermont. She invoked the Sandy Hook massacre to make the case for removing legal immunity from gun makers and sellers. Sanders, who had earlier in the campaign suggested he would revisit his opposition to that move, on Sunday defended it, somewhat apologetically.

The two also clashed over the Export-Import Bank, typically a more hotly contested fight on the right. Free-market conservatives last year launched a failed campaign to force the expiration of the bank’s charter, arguing it exists to dole out taxpayer-backed guarantees to giant corporations that don’t need them. Though Democrats largely support it, Sanders picked up the conservative critique on Sunday, calling it the “Bank of Boeing.” Explaining how he came to align with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the issue, he said, “I don’t want to break the bad news. Democrats are not always right. Democrats have often supported corporate welfare.”

Clinton at first argued for the bank on the basis of the support it offers small businesses. She then acknowledged it disproportionately benefits big companies but that it’s needed nevertheless to help them keep pace with foreign competitors. “There are two big plane manufacturers in the world: there’s Airbus and Boeing,” Clinton said. “Airbus does everything it can to get contracts to sell planes everywhere in the world. We don’t have as quite an aggressive outreach from our government.”

Both candidates borrowed some of Republican front-runner Donald Trump’s metric-flogging self-congratulations in explaining why they’d be the best to confront him. “Let me start by saying that 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 pointed to polls, noting “almost every poll has shown that Sanders versus Trump does a lot better than Clinton versus Trump.”

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