Vying to unseat Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders pushed an anti-Wall Street message Sunday in Charleston, returning again and again to charges that the former secretary of state is tied to the “super-PAC financiers.”
Clinton took aim at Sanders of Vermont for the independent’s plans for Medicare-for-all – a plan that he clarified in a news release right before the debate began – and his past votes on gun control. The two sparred in what was their last face-off before Iowa Democrats head to the polls on Feb. 1, where they are in a dead heat.
Clinton continued her efforts to paint Sanders as a friend of the gun lobby, a message that could play well in South Carolina, where gun violence shook the state last year.
Clinton has called for ending gun manufacturers’ immunity from liability, saying she will close the so-called “Charleston loophole.” That loophole allowed accused Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof to take possession of a gun when his background check had not been completed after three days.
Asked about the loophole Sunday morning, Sanders said he wants to look at it. But, he added, having a “strong instant-background check” is most important.
The day before the debate, Sanders also announced his support for a federal bill that would strip gun manufacturers of their protections from liability lawsuits. Those protections were given to them in a 2005 bill that Sanders supported.
Asked during the debate if he had flip-flopped on the gun issue, Sanders defended the 2005 bill, saying it banned ammunition “that would have killed cops” wearing armor and had child-safety requirements. “(A) small mom-and-pop gun shop who sells a gun legally to somebody should not be held liable if somebody does something terrible with that gun.”
Clinton went on the attack. “He voted for what we call the ‘Charleston loophole.’ He voted for immunity from gunmakers and sellers, which the NRA said was the most important piece of gun legislation in 20 years,” she said.
“Let's not forget what this is about,” Clinton said. “Ninety people a day die from gun violence in the country. That's 33,000 people a year – one of the most horrific examples, not a block from here, where we had nine people murdered.”
Closing that loophole also is a priority for some S.C. legislators, including Democrats from Charleston, home of the June massacre of nine African-Americans during a Bible study at the historic "Mother Emanuel" AME Church.
Sanders tried to tie Clinton to Wall Street financiers who pump money into politics, and leave the working and middle classes out of the political debate.
“Can you really reform Wall Street when they are spending million and millions of dollars on campaign contributions and when they are providing speaker fees to individuals?” Sanders asked during one of several heated exchanges, referring to hundreds of thousands of dollars that Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have earned in speaking fees.
Clinton countered, saying Wall Street is on the run. “The hedge-fund billionaires who are running ads against me right now ... funded by money from the financial-services sector – sure thing – I'm the one they don't want to be up against.”
Clinton also criticized Sanders for wanting to enact a new health-care plan. Sanders would do away with private health-care insurance, replacing it with universal, public plan and, Clinton said, renewing a “contentious” fight.
“This has been the fight of the Democratic Party for decades,” Clinton said of President Obama’s heath-care law. “We have the Affordable Care Act. Let's make it work.”
Joining Clinton and Sanders on the stage in Charleston was former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, running at a distant third.
Clinton has a 40-percentage-point lead over Sanders in South Carolina’s February primary, according to polls from mid-December. All eyes have been on Iowa, where Sanders is catching up with Clinton, and in New Hampshire, where the self-described democratic socialist has the lead.
Before the candidates debated, demonstrators crowded along Charleston’s Calhoun Street, between the debate at the Gaillard Center and Mother Emanuel, just a few minutes walk away.
Connie Weethee of Lexington held a sign that read, “You can’t make up in 30 days what Hillary has done for 30 years.” Ben Nelson, a retired machinist from Summerville, said he’s backing Clinton because she will “follow up on Obama’s policies.”
Speaking to 700 Democrats gathered for a dinner Saturday night, Clinton also appeared the favorite, receiving a standing ovation. Her supporters repeatedly cited her experience as why they support her.
But the campaigns’ grassroots support was clear at U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn’s late-night fish fry Saturday. There, Patricia Fisher of Charleston said, “I was all for Hillary for a long time. I was all for her being our first female president.” But, Fisher added, Sanders’ “progressive” message won her over on Facebook.
“He’s all about raising that minimum wage to $15 an hour. Everybody’s like, ‘Well, how’s he going to do that?’ It’s called Wall Street. It’s called holding them responsible for their fair share.”
“It’s all doable; it’s just with those top 1 percent and the rest of us are living off of crumbs. It’s time for that to change.”