By John Whitesides
MILWAUKEE (Reuters) – Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders battled over healthcare and Wall Street in a debate on Thursday, with Clinton accusing Sanders of misleading Americans on his healthcare plan and making promises “that cannot be kept.”
In a sixth presidential debate that featured several sharp exchanges but a more sedate tone than their last meeting, Clinton said Sanders’ proposal for a single-payer, Medicare-for-all healthcare plan would mean dismantling Obamacare and triggering another intense political struggle.
“Based on every analysis I can find by people who are sympathetic to the goal, the numbers don’t add up,” Clinton told Sanders. “That’s a promise that cannot be kept.”
Sanders said he would not dismantle the healthcare plan known as Obamacare and was simply moving to provide what most industrialized countries have – healthcare coverage for all.
“We’re not going to dismantle anything,” Sanders said. “In my view healthcare is a right of all people, not a privilege, and I will fight for that.”
Sanders repeated his accusation that Clinton is too beholden to the Wall Street interests she once represented as a U.S. senator from New York, noting her Super PAC received $15 million in donations from Wall Street.
“Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people,” he said. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions? I guess just for the fun of it, they want to throw money around.”
Clinton said the donations did not mean she was in Wall Street’s pocket, and noted that President Barack Obama had taken donations from Wall Street during his campaigns.
“When it mattered, he stood up and took on Wall Street,” she said.
The Judicial System and Race
With the presidential race moving into states with larger minority populations, both candidates decried the high incarceration rate of African-Americans and called for broad reforms of the criminal justice system. Sanders said black incarceration rates were “one of the great tragedies” in the United States.
“That is beyond unspeakable,” Sanders said of a disproportionately high black male prison population. He called for “fundamental police reform” that would “make it clear that any police officer who breaks the law will in fact be dealt with.”
Clinton criticized what she said was “systemic racism” in education, housing and employment. “When we talk about criminal justice reform … we also have to talk about jobs, education, housing and other ways of helping communities of color,” she said.
Clinton entered Thursday’s debate under acute pressure to calm a growing sense of nervousness among her supporters after a 22-point drubbing by Sanders on Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary election and a razor-thin win last week in the Iowa caucus. Both states have nearly all-white populations.
For his part, Sanders, an independent U.S. senator of Vermont who calls himself a democratic socialist, hoped to harness the momentum and enthusiasm he gained from the first two contests and prove he can be a viable contender to lead the Democratic Party to victory in the Nov. 8 presidential election.
“What our campaign is indicating is that the American people are tired of establishment politics,” Sanders said. “They want a political revolution.”
The race now moves to what should be more favorable ground for Clinton in Nevada and South Carolina, states with more black and Hispanic voters, who, polls show, have been more supportive of Clinton so far.
Clinton, a former secretary of state, on Thursday won a significant endorsement from the Congressional Black Caucus, while Sanders has launched his own effort to make inroads among African-American voters.
Sanders met with civil rights leader Al Sharpton the morning after his New Hampshire win, and has aired advertising and built up staff quickly in both Nevada and South Carolina. The debate on Thursday was the last one before those two contests.
After South Carolina on Feb. 27, the presidential race accelerates with 28 states voting in rapid succession in March, including 11 states on March 1 and big prizes such as Ohio, Florida and Illinois on March 15.
(Additional reporting by Amanda Becker, Alana Wise and Megan Cassella in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler)
Photo: Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton arrive on stage ahead of the start of the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, February 11, 2016. REUTERS/Darren Hauck