Clinton adjusts pitch: I can be a Sanders, just better

Clinton attacks Sanders for criticizing Obama

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at Senator Bernie Sanders at the February 11 Democrat debate for his past criticisms of President Obama. Sen. Sanders defended himself saying senators "have the right to disagree with the presid
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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lashed out at Senator Bernie Sanders at the February 11 Democrat debate for his past criticisms of President Obama. Sen. Sanders defended himself saying senators "have the right to disagree with the presid

Hillary Clinton wants you to know she’s a more realistic, more savvy version of Bernie Sanders.

She, too, wants to close corporate loopholes, make college and health care more affordable and get tough on Wall Street. Just as Sanders does, except she’d proceed more carefully and practically.

Same with Social Security, and income inequality. Me, too, she said. Just better.

Clinton’s challenge, though, was clear during Thursday’s debate. Sanders argues with a passion that appeals to voters disgusted with Washington inertia. Clinton reasons with fact-laced talking points and anecdotes about how things work. Sanders leans into the podium, his right index finger pointing at the viewer as he promises a radical new way of doing business. Clinton is more lawyerly, more measured, even, arguably, more presidential.

She spent much of the debate, the first since Sanders and his insurgent army crushed her in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, intent on providing a distinctive dash of reality. She tried to convince voters fed up with politics as usual that the difference between Sanders and her is largely one of temperament and résumé.

So when Sanders railed against a “rigged economy . . . where ordinary Americans are working longer hours for low wages,” Clinton echoed, “the economy is rigged for those at the top.”

Aligned with a corrupt campaign-finance system is a rigged economy.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at Thursday’s debate

She went a step further, appealing directly to two of the constituencies she needs most. She pledged to help “African-Americans who face discrimination in the job market, education, housing and the criminal justice system.” She promised to help women get “the equal pay we deserve.”

Her most stinging moment came when she said, “Today, Sen. Sanders said President Obama failed the presidential leadership test.” Sanders, clearly rattled, called that a “low blow,” but it registered with Democratic voters, particularly African-Americans, who regard President Barack Obama highly.

Clinton did challenge Sanders. On universal health care, he argued that $500 in taxes for middle-class families would save $5,000 in health care costs.

“The numbers don’t add up,” Clinton said. They also debated whose plan makes the most sense. Clinton was the knowing veteran: Blow up the system, and you only trigger a new debate that could drag on for years and get nowhere.

On and on this went.

Sanders built his campaign with small donations. So did she, she said, and wrapped herself in the mantle of his popular support:

“That, I think, between the two of us demonstrates the strength of support among people who want to see change in our country.”

Let's not in any way imply here that either President Obama or myself would in any way not take on any vested interest, whether it’s Wall Street or drug companies or insurance companies or, frankly, the gun lobby to stand up to do what’s best for the American people.

Hillary Clinton at Thursday’s debate

They’re in “vigorous agreement” that Social Security needs more revenue, Clinton said. They just differ on the means.

“Both of us share the goal of trying to make college affordable for all young Americans,” Clinton promised, though with a different plan.

Sanders boasted of his sterling abortion-rights record. Clinton cited her endorsement from Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

When Sanders offered a characteristically passionate description of why the nation’s criminal justice system is unfair for African-Americans, Clinton responded, “I completely agree with Sen. Sanders.”

Clinton still faces a big hurdle in trying to get wavering Sanders loyalists into her camp: She’s inexorably tied to a system that Americans increasingly disdain.

She didn’t mention Thursday the $153 million that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, earned in speakers’ fees from 2001 through last year, an average of $210,795 per speech, a CNN analysis showed. Hillary Clinton earned at least $1.8 million for at least eight speeches to big banks.

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A super political action committee that supports her has benefited from wealthy donors. She noted that Obama’s supporters included Wall Street interests, yet he signed legislation into law that restricts practices in the financial sector.

Come on, said Sanders. “People aren’t dumb. 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,” he said.

She voted for the Iraq War in 2002, a vote Sanders wouldn’t let her forget. She later said that was a mistake, and Thursday she pointed to her four-year stint as secretary of state as evidence of her knowledge and judgment.

Clinton’s challenge is to keep these controversies in the background while continuing to show that she feels Sanders’ eagerness for change, but in a thoughtful way. That’s a tough mission, because Sanders goes from the gut. Clinton goes from position papers.

David Lightman: 202-383-6101, @lightmandavid

At the February 11 Democrat debate, Senator Bernie Sanders attacked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's foreign policy judgement by pointing out her decision to take advice from Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon an