If Saturday night’s speech by Bernie Sanders was any indication of his approach to Sunday’s presidential debate, the upcoming clash with Hillary Clinton could be the most interesting and fully-joined of the Democratic campaign season.
Sanders went hard at Clinton over her campaign’s financing, her high-cost speeches to Wall Street insiders and her past embrace of Henry Kissinger as someone she relied on when she served as secretary of State.
He also firmly defended his chances in Michigan — which Clinton is widely expected to win Tuesday — and his national electability.
Speaking to a rapturous crowd at Macomb Community College in the suburbs of Detroit, Sanders made a repetitive point of remarking that he and his campaign had been “listening” to varied voter groups; he specifically cited African Americans, Latinos, women, workers, seniors, students and veterans. It seemed an effort to blunt any notion of his campaign as a vehicle for the young and inexperienced, and to broaden its reach across the landscape of Democratic interest groups.
Sanders’ criticisms of Clinton have often been couched with some respect for her family’s place in the Democratic firmament. But on Saturday he spoke bitingly about the former first lady and New York senator. Regarding the benefit Clinton has received from super PACs acting on her behalf, Sanders said the groups had raised $25 million from special interests and $15 million of that from Wall Street.
"Now every candidate in the history of the world -- Democrat, Republican -- when they receive big amounts of money from Wall Street … they always say: 'Not gonna impact me!'" Sanders said. "And our question is: If it’s not going to impact their decisions, why would Wall Street be spending $15 million?"
Sanders says he doesn't have a super PAC, but one allied with the nation’s biggest nurses' union has been working on his behalf. Its spending is small compared with the Clinton-supporting organizations.
Sanders also hit Saturday on Clinton’s past receipt of hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches made to Goldman Sachs. Clinton has been pressured to release transcripts of the speeches but has refused unless every other candidate, Democratic and Republican, releases their speech transcripts. With a dramatic flourish, Sanders told an interviewer recently that he would release all of his speeches -- had he delivered even one.
"As some of you know, she has given a number of speeches behind closed doors to Wall Street," he said Saturday night. "She has been paid $225,000 per speech."
"I kind of think if you’re going to be paid $225,000 for a speech, it must be a fantastic speech …which you would want to share with the American people. $225,000 is an extraordinary speech. A Shakespearean speech."
His criticism was similarly acidic about Clinton’s suggestion in one debate that she looked for guidance to Kissinger, President Nixon’s secretary of State. The comments came after Sanders' regular assertion that his vote against the Iraq war showed he had better judgment in foreign affairs than Clinton, who voted for the war.
"You guys know Henry Kissinger? Why one would look for approval from one of the worst, most destructive secretaries of State in the history of this country, I don’t understand," Sanders said. "I do not want Henry Kissinger’s approval. When that day comes I’ll know I’m doing something wrong."
While Sanders has taken on some of the topics before, his inclusion of all of them in tart tones seemed an escalation of sorts.
The Vermont senator has struggled somewhat to find an approach that hits Clinton hard without boomeranging back on him, or alienating supporters who see him as a purer distillation of politics than Clinton.
In the first Democratic debate, he took a potent subject off the table by memorably saying that he was sick of her "damn emails" and would not make an issue of her use of a private server while she was secretary of State. (Sunday's debate in Flint, Mich., begins at 5 p.m. PST.)
In his ads in Michigan, Sanders indirectly criticizes her trade stance — Clinton has backed trade deals, including her husband’s North American Free Trade Agreement, that Sanders and organized labor say have contributed hugely to the loss of manufacturing jobs in places like Michigan. Yet in the ads he posits that he is the only candidate in the race who would defend workers, thus avoiding a frontal assault on Clinton.
At his event Saturday night, speakers who worked the crowd before Sanders were not reluctant to criticize both Clintons.
"The last time the family was in the White House you sent our kids to prison … and you shipped our jobs overseas," said Sanders supporter Ben Jealous, former president of the NAACP. His criticisms referred not only to NAFTA but to a criminal justice crackdown during Clinton’s tenure. The crowd, meanwhile, booed loudly at mentions of the former president and his wife.
Sanders spoke before it was known that he had defeated Clinton in Nebraska and Kansas, victories that may give his campaign a boost of optimism. But his long-term prospects have been so iffy, given Clinton’s delegate lead, that on Saturday he defended his standing.
He flatly promised to win Michigan on Tuesday, and he pointed to polls that suggested he would defeat Republican front-runner Donald Trump in a general election.
"More importantly than polls, I will tell you why together we will beat Trump," he said. "We will beat him because the American people do not want a president who insults Mexicans.… The American people do not want a president who insults Muslims. The American people do not want a president who insults women. Or a president who insults African Americans."
All of that is merely hypothetical, of course, unless he first defeats Hillary Clinton.