WASHINGTON — At a New Hampshire town hall meeting, Bernie Sanders described himself as a man of faith and Hillary Rodham Clinton opened up to a rabbi about her insecurities.
The town hall in Derry, broadcast live on Wednesday and moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, came six days before the New Hampshire presidential primary vote and just days after Sanders almost upset Clinton, the putative front-runner, drawing to a virtual tie with her in the Iowa caucuses.
“You’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” Cooper asked Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont vying with Clinton, the former secretary of state, for the Democratic presidential nod.
Sanders, who until now has been hesitant to discuss his religious beliefs or his Jewish upbringing, said faith is a guiding principle for him. “You know, everybody practices religion in a different way,” he said. “To me, I would not be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”
Sanders said he expressed his faith through the sense of responsibility he had for others. “My spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me,” he said. “That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”
A question for Clinton came from Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett, who helms Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, N.H. He quoted a teaching by Rabbi Simcha Bunim, a Hasidic sage of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
“Every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note,” Spira-Savett said, quoting Bunim. “And the note in one pocket says the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says I am just dust and ashes.”
He then asked Clinton: “How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?”
Clinton launched into a reflection on her difficulties living in the public eye. She contrasted her struggles “about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification” with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who she said “was such a natural, knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
Clinton said her struggle to balance ego and humility is a daily one. “And I don’t know that there is any ever absolute answer, like, ‘OK, universe, here I am, watch me roar,’ or, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t do it, it’s just overwhelming, I have to retreat.’”
She said she takes advice from faith leaders, including rabbis who send her notes on Jewish religious teachings.
Clinton quoted a Jesuit reading of the Christian parable of the prodigal son. “Be grateful for your limitations,” she said. “Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions.”
Spira-Savett’s Bunim citation left an impression on Clinton; she returned to it toward the end of the town hall when she confessed to hankering for anonymity, to longing for time with friends.
“They keep me grounded,” she said. “They keep me honest. They deflate my head. They deal with the universe in one pocket and the dust and ashes in the other.”
Clinton’s liberal bona fides questioned
During the candidate forum, Sanders opened up a new line of attack, putting Clinton on the defensive over her liberal credentials just days after she eked a slim victory in the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders, who has a sizable lead in the upcoming New Hampshire primary, rattled off a list of issues where Clinton isn’t in sync with the liberal wing of the party, including trade, Wall Street regulation, climate change, campaign finance and the 2002 authorization of the war in Iraq.
“I do not know any progressive who has a super PAC and takes $15 million from Wall Street,” Sanders said. “That’s just not progressive.”
Clinton moved quickly to defend her record, saying that under Sanders’ criteria President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and even the deceased Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, a champion of liberal causes, would not be considered progressive.
“I know where I stand,” said Clinton. “But I don’t think it helps for the senator to be making those kinds of comparisons because clearly we all share the same hopes and aspirations for our country.”
She also pushed back on charges by Sanders and his allies that she cannot be trusted to regulate Wall Street because of the millions in speaking fees she made from the industry before announcing her presidential bid. An Associated Press analysis of public disclosure forms and records released by her campaign found that Clinton made $9 million from appearances sponsored by banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, private equity firms and real estate businesses.
Clinton said she was still deciding whether to run for president when she accepted the appearances
“I don’t know,” she said, when asked why she was paid such a high speaking fee. “That is what they offered.”
The back-and-forth on progressive credentials was the latest example of tensions between Clinton and Sanders as the race nears the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary. The Democratic rivals are expected to appear at a debate on Thursday night and both camps have quarreled over the timing and locations of three debates planned for later this spring.
Clinton has questioned Sanders’ commitment to gun control and whether his proposal to create a universal health care system might endanger Obama’s signature health care law. Sanders, meanwhile, casts Clinton as an establishment figure and an inconsistent champion of liberal causes such as the environment, trade and campaign finance reform.
Sanders’ razor-thin loss in the Iowa caucuses Monday, and his formidable lead in New Hampshire polls, have heightened the possibility that the two remaining Democrats will be involved in a protracted fight for the nomination.
“We are in this until the convention,” Sanders told reporters on Tuesday. He said the narrow Iowa outcome showed his campaign’s ability to take on Clinton’s vast political network and address doubts among voters about his electability.
Clinton acknowledged that she yet to win over broad swaths of the party, particularly younger voters. In Iowa, Sanders won 84 percent of voters under age 30 and 58 percent of those aged 30-44 according to entrance polls.
“I respect the fact that I have work to do,” said Clinton. “They don’t have to be for me, I will be for them.”