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Bernie Sanders attacks Hillary Clinton's foreign policy record during Brooklyn debate

Call it the Brawl in Brooklyn and so it was as the two rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, went full bore trying to diminish the other and burnish themselves just five days from the New York primary.

But it was a brawl with some news and some surprises.

Ms Clinton had resisted having this debate at all – the ninth between them - seeing little upside in giving oxygen to the Senator from Vermont, who, in spite of scoring a string of big victories in recent state contests, needs a breakthrough more than she does. And that must come in New York on Tuesday.

It is not clear, as ever, whether the debate, furious and feisty though it was, will have changed the dynamic of the race, which is bad news for Mr Sanders who remains the underdog in New York and remains seriously adrift in the race to win delegates before the nominating convention in July in Philadelphia.

But it was surely Senator Sanders who gave the greatest jolt of electricity to the night in the one area he might be at the biggest disadvantage, foreign policy.  (He has not served as Secretary of State.)  He stood there on the stage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and squarely spoke up for the innocent Palestinians killed and wounded during what he called the “disproportionate” Israeli assault on Gaza in 2014.

The gasps of the Jewish lobby might have changed the tide cycle of New York Harbour for good. It is an unwritten rule of New York politics that you never, ever criticise Israel openly. And surely not when you are days from an election in the state. And yet here was Mr Sanders declaring: "We are going to have to say that Netanyahu is not right all the time," referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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Expanding the confines of American politics is partly what the Sanders campaign has been about and surely that is healthy.  He dares say and do things most others politicians never would.  Donald Trump, in an entirely different way, has been doing the same on the Republican side, which earned him the endorsement of The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, on Thursday night.

Mr Sanders is tireless in pushing those boundaries and pushing Ms Clinton.  On foreign policy again, he assailed her for her role in involving the US in the toppling of Muamar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, pointing to an admission made by President Barack Obama this week that not planning properly for what was meant to happen the “day after” in Libya may have been the biggest mistake he made in office.

Ms Clinton resorted to blaming Mr Obama, saying he was the one who took the decisions, both as regards Libya and also the ongoing catastrophe in Syria.  This was rich given that she had spent much of the rest of the debate trying to claim Mr Obama’s coattails, aware that he remains popular with many New York voters and certainly its minority populations. She actually drew the first boos of the night when she tried to suggest that any time Mr Sanders attacked her he was in fact attacking Mr Obama.

The Senator also managed to elicit from the former first lady her most explicit expression of regret yet for having back her husband in passing a savage sentencing law in 1994 that led to an explosion of black incarceration in America. “I am sorry for the consequences that were unintended and had very unfortunate consequences for people’s lives,” she offered.

You can’t fault either candidate for their passion or their energy.  One is just shy of seventy and the other, Mr Sanders, is four years past it.  (And, amazingly, he was due to leave directly after the debate for the airport for a flight to the Vatican where he is to speak at a conference on Friday.)   And don’t imagine that Ms Clinton, who was just as fiery and focused, did not have her moments also.

She not only speared Mr Sanders on his patchy support for gun control but twisted the blade and he struggled to offer a coherent comeback.  Few topics will stir more emotion in Brooklyn than the scourge of gun violenceHe was stumped when, after he had faulted her from taking money from special interests and the banks on Wall Street, she asked him to name on example where that had influenced her in making or supporting policy. “There are no examples,” she declared.

And she also very effectively and consistently tagged Mr Sanders as a dreamer with very ambitious ideas that he would never have any hope of actually getting through the US Congress or implementing.  “It’s easy to diagnose the problem” she said over and over, “it’s harder to solve the problem”.

She may be right. But the question New York Democrats will surely ask themselves when they vote on Tuesday is will they play safe and settle for Ms Clinton’s pragmatic incrementalism, or be steered by their hearts to Mr Sanders who makes no bones about what he is after: a political revolution.


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