The lines broke through in a relatively tame debate Thursday night in Milwaukee. The repetition might have made even Marco Rubio blush, though none of it is guaranteed to be an effective counter to a Sanders message that’s gaining traction.
Among Clinton’s lines: “That’s a promise that cannot be kept.” “We should not make promises we can't keep.”
She continued: “We should level with the American people.” “You need to level with people.” “We have to level with people.”
After a blowout loss in New Hampshire, Clinton dialed back the aggressive, even indignant tone she offered just a week ago, in her previous debate with Sanders. Instead, she offered a careful and nuanced prosecution of Sanders’ platform.
The through-line for Clinton: Sanders is offering rhetoric he can’t match in reality. More broadly, she sought to cast herself as the true heir to the Obama legacy, vowing to continue his work on health care, immigration, and -– in a recurring dig at Sanders –- gun control.
“The kind of criticism that we've heard from Senator Sanders about our president I expect from Republicans -- I do not expect from someone running for the Democratic nomination to succeed President Obama,” Clinton said.
“Madam Secretary, that is a low blow,” Sanders said. “One of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.”
For Clinton, cozying up to the president works in a Democratic Party where Obama remains broadly popular. But it carries an inherent danger for Clinton, given the disenchantment with the state of politics among younger voters -– and many who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Sanders portrayed Clinton as part of an establishment that fueled by special-interest dollars -– a system he calls “corrupt.”
“Secretary Clinton's Super PAC, as I understand it, received $25 million last reporting period, $15 million from Wall Street,” Sanders said, returning to a favorite line of attack.
Clinton said she has small-dollar donors of her own, and has no control of the super PAC that supports her: “You are mixing apples and oranges,” she told Sanders.
“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” countered Sanders. “People aren't dumb. Why in God's name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it.”
On policy, the two remaining candidates offered plenty of -– in Clinton’s words –- “vigorous agreement.” If anything, Clinton sought to downplay policy and rhetorical differences.
“Yes, the economy is rigged for those at the top,” she said early in the debate, taking a Sanders refrain away for herself.
Foreign policy again brought sharper differences, including an unexpected disagreement on whether there’s anything useful to learn from Henry Kissinger.
It was another strong debate performance by Clinton, who is now braced for a longer primary campaign than she ever expected to have. The candidates seemed weary from the battle at times, perhaps mindful that they still have four more debates scheduled against each other.
At one point, early in the debate, Sanders tried out his own reality check: “Secretary Clinton, you’re not in the White House yet.”
The crowd groaned a bit. But Clinton’s path to the nomination didn’t get any clearer after Thursday night.