ANALYSIS - CHARLESTON, S.C.— -- The Democrats’ final debate before 2016 voting starts brought clarity to the choice ahead for Democratic primary voters, in a battle that’s pitting the party’s head against its heart.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders offered the louder and bolder vision tonight in South Carolina, channeling some of the anger that’s blossoming in both parties in 2016. His is a play for the hearts of voters, including segments of the Democratic Party that are disappointed in the Obama years.
Hillary Clinton, still the front-runner but facing a more intense challenge than she anticipated, offered aggressive lessons on political practicality. She urged a more intense examination of her rival’s record, and embraced President Obama’s legacy more fully than she has in the past.
Nowhere was her appeal to voters’ heads more evident than in arguing that Sanders’ single-payer health care plan is dangerous for Democrats to attempt to even pursue, given the battles it took to make Obamacare law.
“We’ve accomplished so much already. I do not want to see the Republicans repeal it, and I don’t want to start over again with a contentious debate,” Clinton said. “To tear it up and start over again, pushing our country back into that kind of a contentious debate, I think is the wrong direction.”
Sanders called it a “disingenuous” attack. He made clear, as he did throughout the night, that he’s not satisfied with the status quo.
“No one is tearing this up. We're going to go forward,” Sanders said.
In talking about big banks, Sanders offered this swipe at Clinton to make his point about corruption he views as systemic: “I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.”
Clinton defended not just herself but Obama, making a broad point that governing is complicated, and much harder than campaigning.
“He’s criticized President Obama for taking donations from Wall Street. And President Obama led out country out of the Great Recession,” Clinton said. “I’m going to defend President Obama for taking on Wall Street, taking on the financial industry, and getting results.”
Underscoring Clinton’s vulnerability on the topic, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley jumped in to point out her “cozy relationship with Wall Street.”
It’s been said that the central tension of the Democratic race is Clinton running against herself. Given how closely she’s linked to the last two Democratic presidents, at a time of deep turmoil in the party and the country, that appears unlikely to change, despite her efforts to intensify scrutiny on Sanders.
The debate revealed Sanders’ many vulnerabilities, from his “democratic socialist” label to his single-payer plan, and his spotty past record on gun control. Sanders acknowledged that the health care proposal he released just hours before the debate can be described as a new tax.
Said Clinton: “I want to raise incomes, not taxes.”
Central to the case Clinton is making now is electability, as she portrays herself as pragmatic and experienced. But Sanders’ calls for a political revolution are clearly resonating with voters.
“In terms of polling, guess what, we are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend, Donald Trump,” Sanders said.
The turn toward discussions of domestic policy has helped Sanders make his case, given Clinton’s natural advantages on foreign policy and national security.
Democrats have a history of listening to appeals to the heart more than the head. Asked why Sanders’ message is resonating as it is with young people – many of the types of voters who powered Obama’s rise -- Clinton didn’t have a great response.
“I hope to have their support when I'm the Democratic nominee,” she said.