NPR logo 7 Democratic Debate Moments: Clinton And Sanders Clash Over Cuba, Immigration Reform


7 Democratic Debate Moments: Clinton And Sanders Clash Over Cuba, Immigration Reform

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton before the Univision News and Washington Post debate on the Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Wednesday in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images hide caption

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton before the Univision News and Washington Post debate on the Miami Dade College Kendall Campus on Wednesday in Miami.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had another tense debate Wednesday night in Miami, less than a week before crucial primary contests on March 15.

The latest face-off between the two came as the Vermont senator was riding high from an unexpected victory Tuesday in Michigan. The two clashed over immigration reform, U.S.-Cuba relations and Wall Street policy, and debated their electoral strategy going forward.

Next Tuesday, voters from Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina and Illinois will cast their ballots.

Here were some of the top moments from the Univision/Washington Post debate broadcast on CNN:

Michigan momentum

It wasn't lost on the moderators that Sanders had pulled off a huge upset over the former secretary of state in Michigan on Tuesday night. But Clinton downplayed the loss and pointed out the positives from the day, including her big win in Mississippi.

"This is a marathon and a marathon that can only be carried out by the type of inclusive campaign I'm running," Clinton said. "I was pleased I got 100,000 more votes last night than my opponent and more delegates."

Sanders argued that he's the one with the momentum, calling his win in Michigan "one of the major political upsets in modern presidential history."

"And I believe that our message of the need for people to stand up and tell corporate America and Wall Street that they cannot have it all is resonating across this country," Sanders said. "And I think in the coming weeks and months, we are going to continue to do extremely well, win a number of these primaries and convince superdelegates that Bernie Sanders is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump."

Immigration flashpoint

One of the most revealing moments came on immigration, an issue of utmost importance to the Latino community at which this debate was aimed.

Both Clinton and Sanders broke with the White House policy of mass deportation by promising not to deport children or other undocumented immigrants who don't have criminal records.

"Of the people, the undocumented people living in our country, I do not want to see them deported. I want to see them on a path to citizenship. That is exactly what I will do," Clinton said.

But Sanders criticized Clinton, claiming she did not make the same pledge regarding Honduran children fleeing violence in Central America.

"Secretary Clinton did not support those children coming into this country. I did," Sanders said. "Now, I happen to agree with President Obama on many, many issues. I think he has done a great job as president of the United States. He is wrong on this issue of deportation. I disagree with him on that."

But while the two found common ground on the issue of deportation, they still needled each other over past immigration votes. Clinton hit Sanders for opposing a 2007 immigration reform bill, which Sanders said he voted against because it had guest worker provisions that were "akin to slavery."

"I have been consistent and committed to comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship," Clinton said. "I think our best chance was in 2007 when [the late Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy led the charge on comprehensive immigration reform. We had Republican support, we had a president willing to sign it. I voted for that bill. Sen. Sanders voted against it. Just think — imagine where we would be today if we had achieved comprehensive immigration reform nine years ago."

In an email to reporters, Sanders' campaign pointed out that many Latino groups and unions also opposed the bill; Sanders supported the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Clinton went even harder against Sanders, referencing his support for a 2006 bill that she said allowed indefinite detention of people facing deportation. She linked his position to the Minuteman Project, vigilantes who patrol the southern border.

"There was a piece of legislation supported by dozens and dozens of members of the House which codified existing legislation," Sanders pushed back. "What the secretary is doing tonight and has done very often is take large pieces of legislation and take pieces out of it. No, I do not support vigilantes, and that is a horrific statement, an unfair statement to make."

Meanwhile, Sanders dredged up a point of conflict between Obama and Clinton in their 2008 race — her opposition to providing undocumented immigrants with driver's licenses in New York.

Big differences between the candidates on Cuba

One of the most consequential exchanges came near the end of the two-hour-long debate, on U.S.-Cuba relations. Both supported President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with the country and ease travel restrictions.

Sanders was presented with a 1985 clip in which he praised the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua and said that what people forgot about Fidel Castro was that "he educated their kids, gave them health care, totally transformed their society."

Sanders tried to explain that he was simply opposing U.S.-led regime change in the Latin American countries and wouldn't say whether he still believed in those characterizations. He turned instead to lifting the trade embargo on Cuba, but noted that while he now hoped it would become a democratic country, progress already made by the Castro government shouldn't be overlooked.

"It would be wrong not to state that in Cuba they have made some good advances in health care," said Sanders. "They are sending doctors all over the world. They have made some progress in education. I think by restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba, it will result in significant improvements to the lives of Cubans and it will help the United States and our business community invest."

Clinton emphatically disagreed with his argument — an important tone to strike in Florida, home to many Cuban emigres and their families who remain very anti-Castro. And those statements from Sanders could hurt him with those voters in next Tuesday's Florida primary.

"You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution or values that I ever want to see anywhere," Clinton said to loud cheers in the room.

Clinton pressed on Benghazi

The former secretary of state's handling of the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, is a frequent GOP talking point, but this was the first time she had been pressed on the issue in a Democratic debate — and the audience didn't like it, booing loudly as the issue was raised.

Univision showed a video of a family member of one of the victims questioning why Clinton had told her daughter, Chelsea, in an email the night of the attacks that al-Qaida was responsible.

Clinton said she had been wrong and that all involved parties at the time "were scrambling to get information that was changing, literally, by the hour. And when we had information, we made it public. But then sometimes we had to go back and say we have new information that contradicts it."

Clinton defends her email server

Clinton was also pressed on her controversial decision to use a private email server while at the State Department, asked bluntly by moderator Jorge Ramos, "Who specifically gave you permission to operate your email system as you did? Was it President Barack Obama? And would you drop out of the race if you get indicted?"

"It wasn't the best choice. I made a mistake. It was not prohibited. It was not in any way disallowed," Clinton argued, maintaining that no emails she sent at the time were marked classified and had instead been retroactively classified in a rash of "over-classification."

Pressed again about what would happen if she were indicted by the FBI, Clinton was exasperated.

"Oh, for goodness — that is not going to happen," she said. "I'm not even answering that question."

Sanders, who famously in the first debate said he's heard enough about her "damn emails," didn't bite this time either.

"There is a process under way, and that process will take its course," he reiterated, saying he'd rather focus on income inequality, climate change and other issues.

The trust factor

Clinton was also asked by the Washington Post's Karen Tumulty about perhaps her biggest Achilles' heel: why so few people view her as trustworthy.

"Is there anything in your own actions and the decisions that you yourself have made that would foster this kind of mistrust?" Tumulty posited.

Clinton admitted, in perhaps one of the frankest moments of the campaign, that it's "painful" for her to hear such criticisms but that she does "take responsibility. When you're in public life, even if you believe that it's not an opinion that you think is fair or founded, you do have to take responsibility."

"I am not a natural politician, in case you haven't noticed, like my husband or President Obama," Clinton said, somewhat wistfully. "So I have a view that I just have to do the best I can, get the results I can, make a difference in people's lives and hope that people see that I'm fighting for them and that I can improve conditions economically and other ways that will benefit them and their families."

But that segued into one of Sanders' most salient attacks on Clinton — why she hasn't released transcripts of her paid speeches to Wall Street groups.

"I would think that a speech so great that you got paid so much money for, you would like to share it with the American people," Sanders argued. "So I think she should release the transcript."

And Clinton still struggled to find a strong response to his push.

"I have been on the record, and now I do have the toughest, most comprehensive plan to go after Wall Street," she argued, even as Sanders pointed out her campaign donations from major financial institutions. "And not just the big banks, all the other financial interests that pose a threat to our economy."

Is Trump a racist?

Another blunt question from the moderator that each candidate ended up not answering directly: Is Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, a racist because of his controversial comments about Hispanics, women, African-Americans and other groups?

"Others are also joining in making clear that his rhetoric, his demagoguery, his trafficking in prejudice and paranoia has no place in our political system," Clinton said. "Especially from somebody running for president who couldn't decide whether or not to disavow the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke. So people can draw their own conclusions about him. I will just end by saying this: You don't make America great by getting rid of everything that made America great."

Pressed again as to whether Trump's call to ban Muslims and other proposals were outright racist, Clinton again demurred.

"I think it's un-American. I think what he has promoted is not at all in keeping with American values," she continued. "And I am going to take every opportunity to criticize him, to raise those issues."

Sanders, too, decried Trump's rhetoric and assailed his tactics, but said he believes logic will win out with voters — and pointed out that he performs better against Trump in some general-election hypothetical matchups than Clinton.

"I think that the American people are never going to elect a president who insults Mexicans, who insults Muslims, who insults women, who insults African-Americans," he said.

Reminding people of Trump's role in the so-called "birther" movement questioning whether President Obama was born in the U.S., Sanders implied it was driven by racism.

"My dad was born in Poland," Sanders continued. "I know a little bit about the immigrant experience. Nobody has ever asked me for my birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin."