POLITICS

The Democratic Debate Was A Weird Role Reversal

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton flipped the script in Brooklyn.

WASHINGTON -- Bernie Sanders repeatedly flubbed opportunities to attack Hillary Clinton on his strongest issue during Thursday night's Democratic debate. And then … he shocked America by outfoxing her on a foreign policy issue.

Listen to HuffPost's analysis of the debate in the latest episode of the politics podcast, So, That Happened embedded below:

For much of the Democratic primary process, Clinton has bashed Sanders as a "single-issue candidate" who only cares about economic policy. This is a politically savvy way to dismiss a political opponent whose economic policies are more closely aligned with those of primary voters than your own. But when CNN opened the Thursday debate with a series of questions about Wall Street reform and big bank accountability, Sanders largely sounded listless and, at times, unprepared.

When asked to name a single policy that shows Clinton had been beholden to big banks, Sanders dodged, opting for campaign talking points about her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.

The question should have been an easy one for Sanders. Elizabeth Warren took Clinton to task over bankruptcy reform years ago. During the latter years of Bill Clinton's presidency, Warren helped convince Clinton to lobby her husband's administration against a bankruptcy bill that helped credit card companies extract more money from broke households. Then, when Clinton moved to the Senate, she supported the bill. Warren cried foul, suggesting that the campaign finance pressures of being a senator had influenced her position.

Yeah, Clinton didn't look great when she refused to release the transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs. But there's really no way for her to make that position look good, and Clinton maneuvered into a point about Sanders' failure thus far to release his tax returns. It wasn't a new talking point, and Sanders was vulnerable on the issue because, well, it's April and he hasn't released his tax returns. He had the first half hour of the debate in the bag, and he failed to exploit his opportunities.

But then something really strange happened. Sanders trounced Clinton on a foreign policy issue. When pushed repeatedly to say something, anything, negative about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton repeatedly dodged and deflected, as Sanders -- the only Jewish presidential candidate to win primary delegates in American history -- relentlessly pressed her on the conservative policies of the Israeli government.

Netanyahu has in the past explicitly rejected the idea of a two-state solution in which Palestinians are granted their own state. Though he has at times walked back that resistance, he does not currently support efforts to pursue a Palestinian state. The international community, including President Barack Obama, considers a two-state solution the only plausible path to lasting peace between Israel and Palestinians. Netanyahu also campaigned for re-election by warning that "Arab" voters were turning out "in droves," and very publicly supported Mitt Romney's 2012 GOP presidential bid. He also worked to undermine Secretary of State John Kerry's peace talks between Israel and Palestine. 

Instead of acknowledging disputes between the Israeli government and the Obama administration -- like Netanyahu's support for additional Israeli settlements in the West Bank -- Clinton appeared to blame all of the problems in Israel on the terrorist organization Hamas, which is supported by the government of Iran. Sanders, by contrast, maintained that the Israeli government's current policies are untenable in the long-term.

"We are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity," Sanders said, noting the 40-percent unemployment rate resulting from the Israeli occupation of Gaza. 

Clinton has tied herself to Obama's legacy on domestic policy, a posture she continued to emphasize on Thursday night. But much of her foreign policy vision is a rejection of Obama's platform, as demonstrated by her speech last month before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Her words went over well at the conference. The Democratic audience on Thursday seemed less impressed.

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