- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2016

With the crucial New York primary just days away, Sen. Bernard Sanders and Hillary Clinton engaged in a brutal, tough-talking debate fitting of the Empire State on Thursday night.

The senator from Vermont accused his opponent of being in the pocket of Wall Street and lacking the judgment to be president, while the former secretary of state said her rival is a puppet of the gun lobby and doesn’t have the policy knowledge to lead the country.

At the Democratic forum in Brooklyn ahead of the Tuesday primary, Mr. Sanders made the damning assertion that the former secretary of state lacks the judgment to lead the country, despite her experience as a U.S. senator from New York and as secretary of state.

Her close ties to Wall Street, Mr. Sanders said, essentially disqualify Mrs. Clinton from being president.

“I question her judgment about running super PACs, which are collecting tens of millions from special interests, including $15 million from Wall Street. I don’t believe that is the kind of judgment we need to be the kind of president we need,” he said. “Do we really feel confident about a candidate saying she is going to bring change in America when she is so dependent on big-money interests?”

Mrs. Clinton wasted no time in firing back. She dismissed Mr. Sanders‘ attacks and said her qualifications cannot be questioned, and wrapped herself in the mantle of President Obama.

“I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. That was a first,” she said of the notion that she is unqualified. “He said he had to question my judgment. Well, the people of New York voted for me twice to be the senator from New York, and President Obama trusted my judgment enough to ask me to be secretary of state.”

She followed up by zeroing in on Mr. Sanders‘ interview last week with the New York Daily News, in which he was unable to give specifics on his plan to break up large banks and also gave shallow answers on a number of foreign policy questions.

“If you go and read Sen. Sanders‘ long interview with the New York Daily News, talk about judgment and talk about the kinds of problems he had answering questions about even his core issues, breaking up the banks,” she said.

Thursday night’s forum came after a week of increasingly ugly attacks between the two sides, with Mr. Sanders — who trails badly in New York, polls show — attacking Mrs. Clinton’s qualifications. The two spent the first 15 minutes of the debate criticizing each other’s judgment before launching into a series of specific attacks on a variety of policies.

One of the most heated exchanged came on gun control, with Mrs. Clinton saying Mr. Sanders has done the bidding of the National Rifle Association for decades.

“He has largely been a reliable supporter of the NRA” during his 25 years in Congress, Mrs. Clinton said at a Democratic presidential debate in Brooklyn.

She specifically cited Mr. Sanders‘ vote against legislation that would have allowed gun manufacturers to be liable for mass shootings.

Mrs. Clinton called that vote “an absolute abdication of responsibility on the part of those who voted for it,” and said no other industry has explicit legal protections against liability if its products kill people.

“This is a unique gift given to only one industry in the world by the United States Congress,” she said.

Mr. Sanders stood by his position while also denying that he is a puppet of the NRA.

“I voted against this gun liability law because I was concerned that in rural areas all over this country that if a gun shop owner sells a weapon legally to somebody and that person then goes out and kills somebody, I do not believe it is appropriate for that gun shop owner … to be sued,” Mr. Sanders said.

Mr. Sanders and Mrs. Clinton have spent the past week campaigning across the Empire State.

All recent polls show the former first lady ahead by double digits, though New York could be a game changer if Mr. Sanders somehow pulls an upset. The New York primary Tuesday has 291 delegates at stake.

As of Thursday, Mrs. Clinton leads in the delegate count 1,758 to 1,069, according to an Associated Press tally that includes “superdelegates” — party officials and officeholders who can vote as they wish.

When those are removed from the equation and only pledged delegates are factored, Mrs. Clinton’s lead shrinks substantially. Among pledged delegates, Mrs. Clinton leads 1,289 to 1,035. It takes 2,383 delegates to clinch the nomination.

New York’s recent move to gradually raise its minimum wage to $15 became a flashpoint in the debate.

Mr. Sanders mocked Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she now supports a $15 minimum wage, calling her position confusing and charging that she’s merely trying to score political points with progressive voters.

“When this campaign began, I said that we’ve got to end the starvation minimum wage of $7 and a quarter, raise it to $15,” Mr. Sanders said. “Secretary Clinton said, ‘Raise it to $12.’ There’s a difference. What has happened is history has outpaced Secretary Clinton because all over this country people are standing up and saying $12 is not good enough.”

Mrs. Clinton has taken a nuanced position on the minimum wage. She has called for a $12 wage at the federal level but supports cities and states — including New York — that want to go beyond $12.

“The minimum wage at the national level right now is $7.25. We want to raise it higher than it ever has been, but we also have to recognize some states and some cities will go higher, and I support that,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Before the debate, Mr. Sanders ran into trouble and had to distance himself from comments made by a surrogate, health care activist Dr. Paul Song, who seemed to refer to Mrs. Clinton as a “corporate whore.” Mr. Sanders denounced the comments, and Dr. Song later apologized.

The Clinton campaign quickly pounced on the remarks. Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, responded on Twitter and said it was “very distressing language to say the least.”

While Mr. Sanders ran away from that particular formulation, he continues to hammer away at the notion that Mrs. Clinton is a bought-and-paid-for friend of corporate interests.

His campaign released a 30-second ad Thursday that urges New York Democrats to “send a message” to Wall Street banks and billionaires. The ad goes on to say that “nothing will change until we elect candidates who reject Wall Street money.”

But Mrs. Clinton refused to give ground on Wall Street reform and said Mr. Sanders‘ central campaign plan to break up big banks is half-baked at best.

“If you go and read Sen. Sanders‘ long interview with the New York Daily News, talk about judgment and talk about the kinds of problems he had answering questions about even his core issues, breaking up the banks,” she said.

Mr. Sanders also called on Mrs. Clinton to release the transcripts of speeches she gave to Goldman Sachs and other firms. She refused, unless Republicans such as Donald Trump do the same.

“Let’s set the same standard for everybody. When everybody does it, I’ll do it, OK?” she said.

Mrs. Clinton also fired back by calling on Mr. Sanders to release his tax returns, and the senator said he would release his 2014 documents Friday.

He again said that his wife, Jane, handles the family’s taxes and has been tied up with campaign work.

“What we have always done — Jane has done them. She’s been out on the campaign trail. We will get them out,” Mr. Sanders said.

He said he will release his 2014 returns on Friday and will release earlier years in the coming weeks.

He called them boring and proudly said he was among the least-wealthy members of the U.S. Senate.

While Mrs. Clinton is far ahead in the delegate race and is poised for a big win in New York, Mr. Sanders‘ progressive supporters say the fact that Thursday night’s debate even took place is proof of the momentum behind the senator’s campaign.

The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign initially were skeptical of more debates, but eventually relented to three additional forums, including Thursday night’s in Brooklyn.

Mr. Sanders also has been able to keep raising huge sums of money and racking up primary and caucus victories despite the supposed “inevitability” of Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy.

“The mere fact that we’re having a debate in the very town that the Clinton campaign is based, right smack dab in the middle of April, speaks to just how strong a campaign Bernie Sanders is running. A year ago, people would have laughed and tried to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge if you’d said that Bernie Sanders would be seriously contesting Secretary Clinton’s home state, let alone coming into it fresh off of sizable victories in the last seven matchups,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal Democracy for America PAC.

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