Sen. Bernie Sanders defended his plan to offer free tuition at public colleges during Wednesday’s Democratic debate, saying he didn’t mind that his plan would offer free tuition even to those who could pay – like, for example, the children and grandchildren of Republican front-runner Donald Trump.
“Absolutely” Trump’s progeny should get free tuition at a state school, Sanders said. “I don’t think they will. But Donald Trump’s kids can go to public school free. . . . We are going to get to Donald Trump by raising the taxes on the top one percent, and millionaires and billionaires.” Indeed, Sanders’ plans to make public school tuition-free call for the tuition to be funded by new taxes on Wall Street trades.
Clinton responded with a sharp version of an argument she has made since the first debates, saying that Sanders’s plans to offer free tuition and universal government-run health insurance will be expensive, unwieldy and very unlikely to be passed by Congress.
“This is going to be much more expensive than anything Sen. Sanders is admitting to. This is going to increase the federal government dramatically,” Clinton said. She quoted her own father, a staunch Republican: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
“Really?” Sanders said. He charged that Clinton was, in effect, giving up before joining the fight: “If the rest of the world can do it, we can,” Sanders said, meaning that many other industrialized countries offer universal health insurance.
Clinton, the former secretary of state, made an unusually personal admission of her political failings in Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, saying that politics “isn’t easy for me.”
“I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama, so I have a view that I have to do the best I can,” Clinton said, in a response to a question from moderator Karen Tumulty about why so many voters consider Clinton untrustworthy, even after so many years in public life. “And hope that people see that I’m fighting for them.”
That admission, ironically, came after a powerful moment, in which Clinton came close to doing what her husband Bill Clinton was famous for: making an audience feel someone’s pain. A woman in the audience had described the difficulties she had faced after her husband, an undocumented immigrant, was deported.
Sanders had responded to her emotional question with a promise to help, by changing U.S. policy as president. “The essence of what we are trying to do is to unite families, not to divide families,” Sanders said.
Clinton began her response by focusing on the woman herself. “Please know how brave I think you are, coming here with your children to tell your story. This is an incredible act of courage that I’m not sure many people really understand. And I want you to know that,” Clinton said.
Later in Wednesday’s debate, moderator Jorge Ramos asked Clinton about the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans were killed – including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. Clinton was the secretary of state at the time, and Republicans have raised questions about whether Clinton had properly prepared State Department installations in Libya for attacks, and about whether she had misled the public about the cause of the attack.
When Ramos began to ask the question, the debate’s audience began to boo at the mention of the word “Benghazi.” He kept on, playing the tape of a relative of one of the four who died, who said she believed that Clinton had misled her about the attacks – saying they had been reactions to an anti-Islam video, rather than planned terrorist attacks.
“She’s wrong. She’s absolutely wrong,” Clinton said about the woman. She said that the explanation she had given to the families was based on what she believed at the time – which was later found to be incomplete and partially incorrect. “This was fog. This was complicated.”
Earlier in the debate, both candidates seemed to break with President Obama on the subject of immigration in Wednesday’s Democratic debate, with both saying that they would not deport children who were living in the U.S. illegally – a rejection of the Obama administration’s decision to deport children along with their families, if they have arrived recently and have been ordered deported by the judge.
“Stop the raids. Stop the roundups,” Clinton said, after close questioning by Ramos. “I will not deport children. I do not want to deport family members, either.”
Sanders agreed, saying that he agreed with Obama on many subjects, but “he is wrong on this issue of deportation.”
The Obama administration has been criticized for these deportation raids, which focus on immigrants who arrived recently from countries in Central America, were not granted asylum in the U.S., and then were ordered deported. American authorities have said they want to deter future waves of illegal immigrants, especially waves of children travelling alone.
Clinton and Sanders spent much of the debate’s early going arguing about past – largely failed – bills in Congress, and the positions they took on them. Clinton, in particular, criticized Sanders for supporting a 2007 amendment that was designed to help the “Minutemen,” a private group that patrolled the U.S. border in hopes of deterring immigration. According to a 2015 BuzzFeed story on that vote, Sanders has said that the measure was seen as largely a minor, empty gesture, and that it had strong support from Democrats at the time.
“No, I did not support vigilantes,” Sanders said, after Clinton had brought it up more than once. “And that is a horrific statement.”
Their first disagreement was about how significant it was that Sanders had defeated Clinton in Michigan the night before.
“One of the major political upsets in modern American history,” Sanders called it.
Clinton said, in essence, that it was a bump in the road.
“Well, look, I won one of the contests and lost another close one,” she said, referring to her lopsided win in Mississippi. “I was pleased that I got 100,000 more votes than my opponent, and also more delegates.”
At the outset of the debate, both candidates expressed support for immigration reform – a nod to their setting, and to the audience watching on Univision, which along with The Washington Post was sponsoring Wednesday’s debate. Sanders offered another nod to the location: a mention of climate change, a major cause of rising sea levels that threaten to encroach on Miami in coming years.
“We know that we have got to combat climate change,” Sanders said.
In the debate’s early going, Ramos asked Clinton who had given her permission to use a private email server for government business.
“It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed,” Clinton said. “There was no permission to be asked.”
Would Clinton drop out of the race, Ramos asked, if an FBI inquiry into her use of those emails ended with her being indicted?
“That is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question,” Clinton said.
Both candidates criticized Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who has called for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.
“I said ‘Basta!'” Clinton said, using the Spanish word for “enough.” She refused to say if she believes Trump is a racist, but criticized his rhetoric as damaging – especially to Trump’s prospects in a general election.