Hillary Clinton, scrambling to recover from her double-digit defeat in the New Hampshire primary, repeatedly challenged Bernie Sanders' trillion-dollar policy plans at their presidential debate Thursday night and portrayed him as a big talker who needed to "level" with voters about the difficulty of accomplishing his agenda.
This new line of attack was a risky attempt to puncture Sanders' growing popularity before the next nominating contests in Nevada and South Carolina. Clinton is wagering that voters will care that Sanders has not provided a political strategy or clear financing plan to enact Medicare for all and provide free public colleges, and that such details will matter more to voters than his inspiring political message.
Clinton pounced from the start, after Sanders demurred from saying how much his ambitious plans would increase the size of the federal government.
She stepped in and said that by her estimates, the government would grow 40 percent under Sanders. And rather than bashing him as she did at their debate Feb. 4, she appeared to try to get under his skin by implying that he had not been transparent about the cost of his programs, such as his proposed expansion of government health care.
"This is not about math — this is about people's lives, and we should level with the American people," Clinton said. "Every progressive economist who has analyzed that say the numbers don't add up." She then repeated a jab at Sanders' reputation as a truth-teller that she would return to during the debate: "We should level with the American people about what we can do to get quality affordable health care."
"I don't know what economists Secretary Clinton is talking to," Sanders responded, insisting that families could come out with savings. "That is absolutely inaccurate."
Sanders, who has exuded confidence since his New Hampshire win, raising more than $6 million in the 24 hours after the polls closed there, was more pointed and even belittling of Clinton at points. He said bluntly that some of her attacks were wrong-headed, and he was dismissive after she talked about her plans to increase federal spending by about $100 billion a year. After Clinton responded to a question by saying, "once I'm in the White House," he began his next answer by saying, "Secretary Clinton, you're not in the White House yet," drawing some murmurs and jeers.
Sanders, who is facing pressure to appeal to racially diverse voters in Nevada and South Carolina, demonstrated little capacity to broaden his political message in compelling new directions.
While he said that his Medicare-for-all program would save the average middle-class family $5,000 a year, he did not present his vision in any new way or frame the issue in personal terms for average voters. Instead, he stuck to the familiar themes of his stump speech, blasting America's "rigged economy" and calling for a "political revolution." His advisers said during the debate that his focus was on introducing himself to new voters around the country, who may be intrigued by his candidacy after days of news coverage about his huge win in New Hampshire.
The PBS debate came at a moment of rising concern among Democrats about the strength of Clinton's candidacy and the electability of Sanders if he becomes the Democratic nominee. Clinton fared poorly among key parts of the Democratic electorate in the New Hampshire primary, losing a majority of the women who voted, as well as young people, who expressed mistrust of her on the campaign trail. Some party leaders fear she will not easily shake off these vulnerabilities in the coming contests. As for Sanders, some Democrats believe he is too liberal and his proposed tax increases too toxic to win a general election.
Clinton put the political world on notice at Thursday's debate that she was going all-in on her campaign's latest approach: to portray Sanders as a politician who was not being honest with Americans and to position herself as a practical-minded leader who would continue the work of President Barack Obama.